By now, we all know the score: during the unprecedented national prosperity of the 1990s, Louisiana was the only Southern state to have more people moving out than moving in, and we were the second lowest in the region in job growth. "The bad news is that we spent too much of the '90s distracted by budget shortfalls, corruption and gambling, and failed to keep up with the progress of other Southern states," says Barry Erwin, president of the Baton Rouge-based Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL), a pro-business, nonpartisan research organization.
For those in search of a little hope for the New Year, Erwin says the good news is that Louisiana has slowly begun to put essential "building blocks" in place to help us catch up. He counts public school reforms and a revitalized vocational-technical community college system among these improvements.
Meanwhile, CABL last week issued 10 recommendations for accelerating economic progress in Louisiana. With wish-list items such as "reform Louisiana's tax structure," the document reads a bit like a letter to Santa Claus. Yet CABL's agenda for the 2003 statewide elections is sound -- and each item represents an indisputable need for the state. Here's CABL's "Top 10":
1. Early childhood education. Louisiana needs to put up another $45 million a year, atop $15 million in federal dollars, for pre-kindergarten instruction of at-risk 4-year-olds. The state money will maximize efforts at breaking cyclical poverty and crime via education, CABL says. Judy Watts, executive director of the statewide advocacy group Agenda for Children, says the Foster Administration and lawmakers can help local businesses today by providing $4 million to fund a $10 million federal match for child care for Louisiana's "working poor."
2. Maintain school reforms and "fill in the gaps." CABL is encouraged by the state school accountability plan but fears it and other reforms will be dumped before they have a chance to "transform the structure of education." CABL wants education reforms strengthened, while the state fights for improved teacher quality and against a staggering student dropout rate of up to 9 percent a year.
3. Continue to invest in higher education and demand its role in economic development. We need our state colleges and universities to improve their research capabilities, raise graduation rates and aggressively market technological innovations and other intellectual property created by professors and students, who should be financially compensated for their work.
4. Expand access to community colleges and vo-tech schools. CABL argues that the state can improve on the quality of vo-tech education without building new buildings. Community colleges can use technology or "distance learning" and coordinate with four-year colleges and universities to reach more students.
5. Tax reform. Gov. Mike Foster has thrown in the towel on reforming Louisiana's antiquated, regressive tax structure, long viewed as a major hurdle to attracting new business. CABL wants a comprehensive reform package that includes lowering the state sales tax, a greater reliance on income tax, lowering the homestead exemption, and "giving local governments more control" over revenue raising. This is hampered, CABL says, by the sacrosanct homestead exemption. Business and franchise taxes would be reduced or eliminated over time. We really need Santa's help here, but CABL is on the right track.
6. International trade and investment. CABL wants the state to encourage more foreign investment and international trade. "That does not seem to be a strategy that has been articulated by the governor or anyone in state government until very, very recently," says Stephanie Desselle, senior vice president of CABL. Desselle notes with some hope the reorganization of the state Department of Economic Development (DED).
7. Encourage entrepreneurs and innovation. Entrepreneurs go where they have access to technology, research and development. In New Orleans, we need to better market our eight colleges and universities, and develop our little-known but promising bio-medical corridor.
8. Market Louisiana to business. CABL says the state does a fine job marketing Louisiana as a tourism destination but not as an attraction for new businesses. DED should take the lead here. "It needs to start producing very quickly because we are behind everybody else," Desselle says.
9. Infrastructure investment. CABL says the proposed Millennium Port near the mouth of the Mississippi River could give Louisiana a boost. Bickering among port authorities needs to be resolved and port road improvements put on the fast track. Meanwhile, "Louisiana has made tremendous strides ... in building its digital infrastructure," CABL says. We need to keep up the pace.
10. Ethics. Voters must "insist on a state government that is ethical, performance-driven and accountable," CABL says. This may be the most difficult goal of the top ten. We must replace a political culture of favoritism with a learning-based, achievement-oriented environment.
Louisiana can catch up, but we need leadership to take us there. Candidates for all offices should take note of CABL's top 10.