For years now, our elected leaders have been blaming our long-suffering public education system as the chief reason that our state has been unable to attract new jobs. But a new survey by the private, nonpartisan Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL) shows that 29 percent of voters statewide believe that Louisiana politics and our corrupt political image are the primary reason that we have trailed other Southern states in job creation for more than two decades. Only 19 percent rank the state's education system as the primary drag on job creation, behind the 22 percent who cite the state's overall "business and employment" climate.
"It's not a pleasant thing to talk about, but citizens still feel fairly strongly that Louisiana's political image and the perception of corruption in government are having a negative impact on our economy," says CABL President Barry Erwin. "There are some economic issues we have little control over, but this is one we should be able to address and improve."
This year's CABL survey was conducted Oct. 22-25 by Wirthlin Worldwide of McLean, Va., which polled for former President Ronald Reagan, among others. The poll shows 59 percent of voters believe Louisiana is "heading in the right direction," compared to 28 percent who say that the state is "seriously off on the wrong track." It also reports that trust in Louisiana elected officials has increased since last year, hitting an all-time high since CABL's first poll in 1994. The bad news is this year's record high is a mediocre score of 5.5 on a scale of zero to 10, where zero represents "absolutely no trust" and 10 represents "total trust" in government officials.
Overall, legislators and other state officials get a "C" for their handling of the state's problems over the last year, equaling 1997 and 1998 survey results.
Perhaps most staggering, 70 percent of all residents say the opportunities in Louisiana for a good wage are either "not very good" or "poor." The grim response cuts across all age groups and educational backgrounds. And when asked if they would leave Louisiana today if they had the means and opportunity, 31 percent of all residents polled -- particularly better-educated men and women age 18 to 34 -- say yes. Sixty-eight percent indicate they would stay in Louisiana.
CABL officials say the 31 percent rate is the lowest affirmative response to the departure question since 1994, and add that it might reflect a "new ambivalence" about moving to new locations after Sept. 11. And it should be noted that plenty of die-hard natives and transplants are reflected in the 52 percent of Louisianians who strongly reject the notion that they would live anywhere else.
However, 31 percent is still a significant part of our population. Of those who would consider fleeing, roughly half cite a lack of quality jobs and opportunities (29 percent) and quality-of-life issues (20 percent). These include concerns about crime and where to best raise a family. Education issues and frustration with state politics and government tie for third place at 11 percent.
Louisiana's job training programs get good or excellent marks (48 percent), though only 32 percent say there are enough state-sponsored programs to help people train for new jobs or skills. Elsewhere, a refreshing 57 percent of all residents polled say they "don't worry all that much about crime," compared to 41 percent who say crime affects their way of life.
Ultimately, the roads to a better way of life and improving our economy are intertwined, and both lead back to our political leadership. Forty-five percent of the voters surveyed by CABL agree with the statement: "Louisiana politics has become so corrupt and dishonest that I feel like my vote for change will never make a difference." That's fewer than the 48 percent who answered the same way in 2000, but that's hardly reason for optimism.
The CABL poll echoes Charles Mathews III, who as the special agent in charge of the FBI in Louisiana noted earlier this year that Louisiana led the nation in federal public corruption convictions in 2000 ("Help Wanted," Feb. 20, 2001). "Public corruption in Louisiana is epidemic, endemic and entrenched," Mathews said. "No branch of government is exempt. No position is too high or low to be affected."
But federal public corruption cases represent only the tip of the iceberg. If political reform is our economic salvation, all citizens must demand higher ethics. We must stop politicians from requiring prospective businesses to hire their cronies as "partners," to contract with politically connected firms or consultants, or to buy massive amounts of fundraising tickets. More to the point, businesspeople who clamor for political reform should not break ranks to wheel and deal with politicians to safeguard their own pieces of the pie. Such practices only make a bad situation worse.
Behind the numbers in the CABL poll is a simple, important message: Cleaning up our politics is essential for economic progress. We cannot talk about one without the other.