During his recent campaign, Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal, a Republican, promised to reach out to every business in Louisiana to gauge its needs. If his campaign is any indication of how this might be carried out " that is, a nonstop, statewide, nook-and-cranny tour in a tricked-out bus with all the amenities " Jindal's ambitious goal might actually be attainable. But it's interesting to note that Jindal wasn't the only candidate making such a promise this year, and he won't be the first governor to move forward with it, either. Outgoing Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, made a similar pledge. Initially, she visited many of Louisiana's top companies personally, and then she mixed in phone calls from her fourth-floor office as the seemingly impossible chore revealed itself in full. Finally, the Louisiana Economic Development agency took to developing a series of direct-mail pieces.
It's certainly a worthwhile effort " and a task Jindal will likely ask business-oriented interest groups to help him complete. Jim Brown, a spokesperson for the National Federation of Independent Business, a nonprofit advocacy group with 6,000 members in Louisiana, says that even before the transition process began last month Jindal was surveying NFIB members and working their responses into his agenda. 'He has reached out and really engaged our members, and they overwhelmingly voted to endorse him," says Brown. 'That's the only way we'll ever get involved."
Of course, economic development encompasses much more than the goals of one special interest. Jindal established his 'Economic Growth Transition Advisory Council" last week. Alexandria's Roy Martin, president of Martin Timber Company, among others, is chairing the council. Vice-chair is Jacqui Vines of Baton Rouge, who serves as vice president and regional manager of Cox Communications.
Efforts to interview the policy leaders last week through Jindal's press office were unsuccessful. But Martin and Vines, who are now working on site at LSU with Jindal's transition team, will soon be holding public hearings to help the governor-elect draft his economic agenda. The two will oversee seven subcommittees, with help from individual team leaders. The subcommittee topics include business retention and recruitment, higher education, natural resources, small business and entrepreneurship, transportation and workforce.
The final subcommittee, which covers the environment, is being headed up by Bob Thomas, director of the Center for Environmental Communications at Loyola. He says plans are just now coming together and that panel directors will meet for the first time this week. He adds that he was told initially that there could be anywhere from 'one to six" public hearings or open committee meetings where average citizens can have input, but it's all conceptual at this point. 'We were told that a main goal was to be finished before Christmas," Thomas says.
By most accounts, the assignments are not ceremonial. The pace and demands will be strenuous. Jindal, a workaholic, wouldn't have it any other way. Already one team captain has dropped off the team in the face of the grueling schedule. Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph resigned from the Coastal Restoration and Hurricane Protection Group last week. 'I just don't have enough time to dedicate to both this and all the work that's piling up back home in the office," Randolph says. She has been replaced by former state Rep. Loulan Pitre, a Republican from Cut Off who chose not to seek re-election.
So, until Jindal's teams get the proverbial ball rolling and report back to the governor-elect, there are few glimpses of his thinking. For starters, Jindal has in the past compared himself to former Gov. John McKeithen, the bulky pro-business politician who died in 1999, but not before putting Caldwell Parish's Columbia on the map.
Economic expansion and job creation defined McKeithen's two terms, and Jindal has predicted that his own administration will be credited for enhancing the state's job environment as well, albeit through ethics reform and other initiatives. 'What is the main focus of Bobby Jindal as governor?" Jindal asks. 'It is to improve the job climate here in Louisiana. That's it. That's my main focus as governor. Of course we need to work to reform the education system, eliminate the corruption in our state government, crack down on crime and get runaway state spending in check, but all of these things must be done in order to make economic development and better paying jobs a reality in Louisiana."
McKeithen was also bold, once calling a special session to resolve an ongoing labor strike. Jindal has repeatedly touted himself as having that kind of boldness, but there's no evidence to back up that claim yet.
Additionally, although the election is over, Jindal still has a 24-point economic development plan to fulfill. According to his campaign platform, the governor-elect wants to eliminate taxes on utilities, manufacturing, machinery, equipment and corporate debt. It's a tall order, but a new Legislature is coming to Baton Rouge, one that is expected to be even more business-friendly than the last. Jindal also had a constant war cry during the campaign to increase research and development tax credits for companies that invest in university research programs.
From the electorate (and elsewhere), there are calls to reform the Louisiana Economic Development agency. Conservative bloggers, for instance, have been promoting the ouster of LED chief Michael Olivier. While certainly a hot-button issue for some, Jindal should demand that it be discussed during one of the planned public meetings.
Dan Juneau, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, an influential lobby at the State Capitol, says voters are expecting fresh faces and new ideas from Jindal's administration, and the governor-elect should deliver. That will mean going beyond passing a new set of ethics laws, Juneau says, adding that it also means revamping how tax dollars are spent, creating more transparency in every aspect of state government and purging Louisiana's trademark bureaucracy of incompetence and inefficiency.
'That will be a war," Juneau predicts. '[Jindal] will need to be a warrior " and he will need the public behind him." Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.