More than 1,700 bills were pre-filed for the annual Louisiana legislative session that begins this week. Because this is a "regular" session, just about any matter can be brought up except tax increases. Gov. Bobby Jindal has made work force development his top priority, and Mayor Ray Nagin has added criminal justice, health care and economic development as his main priorities. Here is our list of bedrock issues that need to be addressed: Work force Development Louisiana has major work force problems. A recent statewide survey by the Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL) found that more than 70 percent of Louisiana's employers have trouble attracting employees, and nearly 40 percent find it more difficult today than five years ago. Meanwhile, the skills required of even entry-level workers are rising. Both the mayor and the governor support measures to address this crisis. The governor's plan addresses five problem areas: getting community and technical colleges to match work force needs, market demand, and available jobs; responding faster to work force opportunities and challenges; getting the private sector more involved in Louisiana's work force strategy; expanding the career options of high school students; and recruiting and training workers to fill available jobs. This is a long-term solution to a long-festering problem. In the end, economic development efforts won't matter if Louisiana does not provide a better-trained work force to fill the jobs that we attract.
Port Consolidation House Speaker Jim Tucker has filed two bills dealing with port consolidation. House Bill 782 would consolidate the ports of New Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines. HB 1086 has a much broader scope. It would authorize lawmakers to abolish "for consolidation purposes" any deep-water port commission, port, harbor and terminal district, and economic development and port district. The notion of "consolidation" is equated with "reform" in post-Katrina Louisiana, and there are good arguments for putting all ports under one authority. The more important issue, however, is investing in port infrastructure in a manner that will allow Louisiana ports regardless of who controls them to lure the kinds of ships that produce the maximum number of jobs. At present, nearly three-fourths of the Port of New Orleans' ships are cargo vessels or tankers, which create relatively few jobs per ship. By contrast, container and break-bulk vessels constitute only about 20 percent of our port's business, yet they create many new jobs per ship. Attracting those job-intensive ships requires a forward-looking strategy based on lower costs to shippers, access to rail service, lower pilotage fees, and infrastructure improvements. The bottom line is this: Port consolidation is attractive, but it is not a silver bullet. It should be pursued only if the long-term focus is investing in port facilities and lowering costs to shippers who will bring jobs to Louisiana.
Mental Health Care New Orleans' mental health-care delivery system remains on life support. We are encouraged, however, by Gov. Bobby Jindal's quick response to the crisis. Several weeks ago, the governor and his new health and hospitals chief announced an infusion of cash and resources into the Metropolitan Human Services District, the local agency charged with turning state financing into a mental health safety net for people needing treatment for drug addiction and chronic mental illness. Meanwhile, retired Criminal Court Judge Calvin Johnson, who created a special docket for mental patients in the criminal justice system, has taken over as interim director of the agency. We hope this recent attention to the district will lead to increased state funding for area mental health needs.
LSU/VA Hospital While Jindal has reacted quickly to the mental health crisis, he seems less supportive of the proposed LSU/VA Hospital. As a candidate and since taking office, Jindal said he supports the concept of an LSU teaching hospital. However, he also said he does not believe the hospital is right-sized at 484 beds. When he interviewed with Gambit Weekly for our endorsement last October, Jindal said he supported a facility of at least 384 beds, possibly as many as 434, but that he wanted independent verification of regional needs. He also indicated his support of a facility that could grow as local needs change. Missing from that equation is a facility that addresses the needs of New Orleans' indigent community, which is smaller after Katrina but still in need of medical care. The LSU/VA facility has been designed to meet the needs of paying as well as nonpaying clients much like world-famous M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston, which is also a public hospital. The governor and lawmakers should resolve the "size" issue quickly and get about the business of building LSU/VA.
Addressing these and other issues will require lawmakers to put the state's interests ahead of local and party agendas. It will also require citizens to pay close attention. That's easier than ever via the Web at www.legis.state.la.us.