All of those are true of Mike Foster. History will probably treat him kindly because he stayed out of federal prison, but the truth is he didn't raise the bar nearly as high as he could have.
But he at least raised it. So let's look back at his years, starting with the good news.
His high-water marks include improving education at all levels, particularly funding for higher education. His accountability program for public school teachers is a work in progress, but it's still progress. And he tried mightily to get public school teacher salaries up to the Southern average.
Another bright spot for Foster was tort reform. Not everybody agrees with his version of it (some of it merely tips the scales in favor of polluters), but he made it a goal and he got it done.
In his second term, he was one of the best friends the metro New Orleans area ever had in the governor's office. He got the Saints deal, the Hornets deal and Phase IV of the Morial Convention Center passed and funded. He pumped millions into other construction projects across the metro area as well.
The low-water marks include breaking -- many times over -- his 1995 anti-gambling pledge. To those whose jobs depend on Harrah's Casino, American Indian casinos and video poker truck stops, that's a good thing. He always couched his support in terms of "economic development."
Economic development generally was not a bright light for him. He readily admitted he didn't see much point in chasing corporate CEOs to lure or keep them here. Apparently they didn't see much point in coming or staying here as a result, and Louisiana continues to lose its best and brightest.
Environmental regulation likewise has to rank as a low-water mark for Foster. The state has been pretty much a lapdog for polluters on his watch.
In other areas, the results were mixed.
For example, in the area of ethics and corruption, he scores well for staying out of jail. But, hell, 49 other governors do that every year. Couldn't he have aimed a little higher? Elsewhere, he tried to let his son lobby for state agencies, and he became the first Louisiana governor to be fined by the Ethics Board for his secret deal to buy David Duke's support. He and his cronies also tried to gain control of thousands of acres of land donated to the state by BP by setting themselves up as the trustees of the property (prime duck hunting marsh, wouldn't you know?).
For a guy who grew up in the marsh, he should have done more for coastal erosion, although his recent efforts are sincere and significant. He's just a little late in the game.
State finances in many ways stabilized on his watch. The Stelly Plan will pay enormous dividends in years to come, but he got on board late. When he initially pushed the concept, it was a net tax increase, and voters rejected it. He did accelerate payment of state debt from the get-go, and that lowered our bond rating, which in turn reduced the amount of money we have to spend on state debt each year, which frees up more money for ongoing programs. But, he initially ran on the pledge of helping businesses, and the first thing he did when he got re-elected was propose a "single business tax." Thank God lawmakers killed it. Overall, government has grown significantly during his tenure -- hardly the kind of legacy a "conservative reformer" (he is neither) aspires to leave.
And finally, highways and transportation are topics that he just never quite got his arms around. To be fair, that quagmire caused many governors to lose their way.
Maybe Kathleen Blanco will have better luck navigating that swamp. Let's hope she builds on all Foster's progress and reverses the things he could have done better.
- David Richmond
- Gov. Mike Foster didn't raise the bar nearly as high as he could have -- but at least he raised it.