Qualifying for a wide range of public offices in Louisiana closed last Thursday (Sept. 6), and now that we know who's running and who's not, it's time for voters to start focusing on the issues. More than any statewide election in memory, this year's ballot challenges voters across the state to think long and hard about what kind of leaders we want in Louisiana. For the first time in our state's history, term limits are having a huge impact on the political landscape, forcing many lawmakers either to retire or to seek other offices. For example, a majority in the state House of Representatives will not be returning next year. In the state Senate, at least 17 of 39 incumbents won't be going back. Gov. Kathleen Blanco's decision not to seek re-election means that Louisiana also will be getting a new governor this year. Clearly, our state is headed for a political sea change.
Or is it?
The old adage, "The more things change, the more they stay the same," has applied on many levels in Louisiana. To be fair, our state has seen some genuine attempts -- and even a few successes -- at political and fiscal reform. However, our bottom line hasn't changed in decades: We still rank at or near the "bottom line" of most lists comparing the positive attributes of the 50 states. Still, every four years, politicians seeking our votes promise to get us off the top of the "bad" lists and onto the top of the "good" lists. At best, we've seen only marginal movement.
Some have hypothesized that the reason Louisiana hasn't changed for the better is because its people haven't demanded better. In effect, we get the government -- and the leaders -- that we deserve because we too often tolerate mediocrity, corruption and incompetence. While we share those frustrations, we choose to believe that the vast majority of Louisiana citizens want our state to be a better place -- and that they're willing to do what it takes to make fundamental change happen.
Choosing the right leaders is the best place to start, and that's why this election cycle is so critical. For the next six weeks, candidates for governor, various statewide offices and the Legislature will bombard voters with slick political ads. Voters, in turn, should do their own homework about the candidates and the issues. Fortunately, two public-policy organizations -- the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) and the Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL) -- have compiled impressive databanks about the men and women who seek to lead our state in the next four years and the issues they need to address.
PAR recently issued a report titled, "Questioning Candidates Beyond the Platitudes." The report outlines important policy issues that PAR says "cannot be addressed with simple answers and campaign slogans" and presents sample questions designed to help voters press candidates for specific answers. "PAR hopes these questions will encourage voters to scrutinize the hopefuls to determine who has plans of action to back up their slogans and sound bites," says PAR president Jim Brandt. The report is available online at www.la-par.org.
CABL has put more than two dozen important questions to the four leading candidates for governor and posted their answers on its Web site (www.cabl.org). The questions probe candidates' positions in seven areas -- primary and secondary education, higher education, business and job growth, fiscal responsibility and tax structure, health care, public safety and coastal restoration. Another section has candidates' resumes along with additional questions about their leadership styles, top priorities and their primary recovery focus for the next year. "One of the most interesting things about the survey is that voters really can look at the responses and differentiate among candidates," said CABL president Barry Erwin. "Some candidates have lengthy answers to questions. Others are short. Some answers might appear nonresponsive. The point is that in many ways, the responses are all revealing." CABL made it easy for voters to review the answers by presenting them in two ways: voters can read all candidates' responses to each question; or they can look at each candidate's responses to all the questions.
CABL will send a similar survey to legislative candidates and post those responses on its Web site as well. In addition, CABL has published several booklets designed to educate voters about issues that Louisiana faces. The Quantum Change Agenda lists the things Louisianans can do to accelerate economic progress, while the Louisiana Fact Book for the 2007 Election shows where our state stands in a number of important economic, social and quality-of-life indicators. Finally, CABL is partnering with Louisiana Public Broadcasting to present a candidates debate on Sept. 27, which will air locally on WLAE-TV32 at 7 p.m. -- and the group is seeking questions to put to the candidates from the public. Anyone can suggest a question by going to the LPB Web site at www.lpb.org and clicking on the icon "Leading Louisiana: The Candidates Speak." Questions can also be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Together, PAR and CABL are offering voters of all political persuasions a treasure trove of useful information that will help them make up their minds before Election Day. It's now up to voters to educate themselves about the candidates and the issues and make sure they vote on Oct. 20. This year's elections present a unique opportunity for fundamental change in Louisiana. We shouldn't settle for anything less.