Last week, the international media focused its lens on Louisiana's historic gubernatorial election between Bobby Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants, and Kathleen Blanco, who has become our state's first woman governor. For most Louisianians, the key election topics were economic development, health care, education and governmental ethics -- not a candidate's gender or ethnic background. This alone makes the 2003 gubernatorial race a landmark election for both the state and nation.
Now, Louisiana stands at a crossroads of challenge and opportunity.
Eight years ago this January, Gov. Mike Foster entered office with a promise to adopt a businesslike attitude and restore ethics to the governor's mansion, a residence that had become tainted by a blend of corruption and cynicism dubbed "the Louisiana way." We have not always agreed with Foster's actions as governor, but we thank him for inaugurating an image of Louisiana as a fair place to do business. Now, it's Gov.-elect Kathleen Blanco's turn to build a new legacy, one of a state as rich in opportunity as it is in resources.
The campaigning is over. We now expect Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin, who endorsed Jindal, to work closely together to address important issues facing the city and the state. Top items on Blanco's agenda should include expanding the Louis Armstrong International Airport and building additional cruise ship berths below Canal Street. "As New Orleans goes, so goes the state, and we understand that," Blanco said after her victory. We look for her to take a leading role in revving up these two vital economic engines.
No doubt Blanco will call a special legislative session early in 2004 to address the state's fiscal problems. We look to her to reduce business taxes that discourage local companies from expanding and national companies from investing in Louisiana. At the same time, we recognize that the state is facing a (conservatively estimated) $300 million budget shortfall, even with those taxes factored in. Another $160 million in temporary taxes are set to expire on June 30, 2004. Blanco and her team should take a fresh look at the entire fiscal picture -- starting with expenditures. Cutting does not come naturally to Democrats, but these are tough times.
Now is a good time to revisit the Legislative Fiscal Office's report "Louisiana in the Economic Vortex," issued last February. (The report can be downloaded at www.lalegisfiscaloffice.com/Budget.html.) In it, Legislative Fiscal Officer Johnny Rombach spelled out the need for rethinking the state's basic fiscal policies. A chief concern is health care. Simply put, the state ought to consider getting out of the hospital business. Instead, Louisiana should move to a system of regional health care districts, with each district having a stable source of revenue. This would help Louisiana right its budget -- and it would better serve the public. In New Orleans, it would strengthen the Charity system by giving it more local governance. If done properly, local/regional public hospitals wouldn't continue to scrounge for money for essential programs and services -- and they could respond better to local health challenges.
Blanco also has an opportunity to build on Foster's serious efforts to fix public education at all levels. Foster got LSU on its feet as our state's flagship institution and addressed capital needs at colleges and universities more than any governor in the past 30 years. To further this work, Blanco should eliminate duplicative degree programs and build on institutions' areas of excellence and uniqueness -- while enhancing LSU's status as the state's flagship university.
In elementary and secondary education, Foster increased teacher pay -- although our teachers have yet to reach the Southern average. We look to Blanco to improve public schools by building on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP). The state should expand its accountability program while ensuring that schools serving impoverished, at-risk students and higher percentages of children in special ed will get needed help. Blanco also should work with the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and local school boards to finally bring Louisiana teachers' pay to the Southern average -- an attainable goal, according to Rombach.
In a September report, the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) recommended a series of steps Louisiana should take to improve governmental ethics. Some of these are no-brainers: prohibiting legislators from engaging in business with a registered lobbyist; expanding sunshine law education efforts; creating a corruption hotline in the Office of Attorney General. We look to Blanco to take the offensive on governmental ethics -- the PAR report is a good place to start.
Kathleen Blanco has hit the ground running. She promises a model of governance that will best utilize her department heads and other elected state officials. Among her best resources is Lt. Gov.-elect Mitch Landrieu, who can help promote the state economically as well as continue his leadership in reforming our troubled juvenile justice system. With each new administration comes new hope. We wish Gov.-elect Kathleen Blanco well. And as always, we'll be watching.