Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, takes office as Louisiana's first woman governor at noon on Monday, Jan. 12. Blanco replaces Republican Gov. Mike Foster, who leaves his successor with a projected $500 million operating budget deficit and billions of dollars in little-publicized state retirement system obligations.
The fiscal mess is part of a mixed legacy that Foster leaves the state, including three areas where he gives himself high marks: education, ethics and fiscal management. Foster did reduce the state's debt, improve our bond rating, establish a rainy-day fund and set up trust funds from the state's multi-billion dollar settlement (though he initially opposed the state's lawsuit against Big Tobacco). However, Foster resisted calls for overhauling Louisiana's antiquated tax system. And because of the gloomy budget outlook, Blanco will likely be forced to renew $160 million in "temporary" sales taxes, which expire June 30. She also will be hard-pressed to honor her campaign promise to phase out $200 million in onerous business taxes -- the corporate franchise tax on business debt and a sales tax on manufacturing machinery and equipment. "[State finances] are going to be her immediate crisis to deal with," says Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR).
The headaches Blanco inherits from Foster belie many of the recent media accolades for the outgoing governor as well as his own longstanding promise to run government like a business. "I believe in operating state government like a business and treating Louisiana like the valued customers they are," Foster, a sugar planter, says in a message posted on the state's official Web site. "Like customers of a business, citizens should expect effective and efficient delivery of the state government services available to them." The public should also hold their elected officials to high standards, just as corporate stockholders expect a performance from their chief executive officer. Unfortunately, disappointments rival some of Foster's most noteworthy achievements.
The grandson of Gov. Murphy Foster (1892-1900), Mike Foster will perhaps best be remembered for the governor he followed -- Edwin W. Edwards. Foster took office in 1996, vowing to end a legacy of corruption personified by EWE, who went to prison on fraud and racketeering charges during Foster's second term. Foster declared war on cronyism. He supported ethical reforms and generally receives high marks for cleaning up the state contracting process. But he sometimes had to be goaded into doing the right thing himself. He became the first sitting governor to be fined by the state ethics board when he made a secret deal to buy a mailing list from neo-Nazi David Duke. Like Edwin Edwards, Foster allowed his own son to try to earn money as an attorney for state agencies -- albeit unsuccessfully. Later, Foster and his associates abandoned an attempt to gain control of the White Lake game preserve southwest of Baton Rouge, one of the largest undeveloped marshes in the United States. In 1999, Foster dumped 7,500 shares of stock he owned in the world's largest gambling company, which owned part of a riverboat casino in New Orleans -- but only after being besieged by journalists.
Indeed, the expansion of gambling is the biggest disappointment of the Foster era. He first ran on an anti-gambling platform but reversed himself and spread gambling throughout the state. He pushed for saving Harrah's Casino in New Orleans from bankruptcy. He added slot machines to Louisiana racetracks and lobbied for American Indian casinos until his last days in office, after calling for a 1996 election that led to the banning of video poker in 33 parishes. "Everything he did was to cement gambling into the landscape of the state," says gambling critic C.B. Forgotston, a New Orleans attorney. We look to Blanco to set higher standards for ethics and good government. And we urge her to keep her promise not to expand gambling, though Foster left little room for that.
By all accounts, Foster set his highest bar in education. He poured billions of dollars into improving public education, state colleges and universities, and the start-up of a pre-K program. He raised pay for teachers and professors. He expanded a state tuition program that helps thousands of families afford college for their kids. Much remains to be done -- but we recognize Foster's seriousness in tackling this far-reaching issue. We expect Blanco, a former schoolteacher, to build on Foster's education record.
Ultimately, Blanco's success will turn on the economy. "[Foster's] strength has been in all levels of education ... and his greatest shortcoming was the apparent lack of priority he placed on economic development," says Brandt of PAR. During Foster's years, many of our youth and middle-class professionals left the state. As manufacturing plants popped up in neighboring Mississippi, Foster's abhorrence of travel and his part-time enrollment in law school grew increasingly aggravating -- and helped lead to the bungling of his re-invention of the state's economic development agency. We hope Vision 20/20 -- Foster's master plan to diversify the state's economy -- gets more effort from Blanco. She takes office on a wave of goodwill and high hopes. We wish her all the best.