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Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Baton Rouge, Louisiana


In a few days, Louisiana voters will have picked a new governor. After endless rhetoric and promises galore, the bayou state’s new chief executive will take a few days off, catch her or his breath, and then begin making a realistic appraisal of what is doable in the coming months. A front burner question that needs to be addressed is “Can the next governor really make any significant difference?” I would suggest the answer is “Yes”, but with some cautious and realistic boundaries.

Some difference, first of all, will be made from the start merely by who’s elected. If Bobby Jindal wins, international attention will be given to the fact that a deep southern state with a history of “parochial and racially laced” politics has elected a second-generation American with roots half way around the world. This is major news in itself, and opens up opportunities to at least get Louisiana noticed. Jindal’s “unique” background probably makes it a little easier to get his foot in the door if an effort is made to sell Louisiana nationally and internationally.

The same argument of “attention” can be made if there is a Kathleen Blanco victory. Few women have aspired to the governorship in the South. In fact, if you lump former Texas Governor Ann Richards with Western states, the only other example I can think of is former Governor Lurleen Wallace who was hand-picked and elected on the strength of her popular husband who preceded her in that office, George Wallace. So Blanco could be the first woman from a deep southern state to be elected by her own efforts. This too makes a strong statement of a “change” in Louisiana.

But with the “perception “of a fresh and different approach by a new governor comes high expectations for quick results. The next governor, to be successful, is going to have to “pick and choose” his battles and is going to have to seek out high profile issues where she or he can make a fairly quick impact.

Let’s be realistic. Our state is not going to see overnight changes is education reform, economic development, coastal erosion and other environmental problems, or any major revamping of the highway system. These problems have been festering for a number of years. If there is a desire to change the direction of the “ship of state”, it will take major collation-building, several legislative sessions, and a significant grass roots effort to build citizen support through out the state. Former North Carolina governor Terry Sanford, back in the 1960’s, forcefully and eloquently put out a new agenda that today has brought the Tar Heel state to the economic forefront of the south. But he made it clear that a long-range commitment was needed and that the state would not see major results for some twenty years. Sanford was right, but he also lost his race for U. S. Senate by being criticized for “not moving fast enough.”

So it may come down to a question of courage. Does the next governor have the fortitude to convince the legislature, already looking towards the next election less than four years away, that the tangible results bringing major benefits to the state are twenty years in the making?

So what can the new governor immediately propose that can be challenging, beneficial, no doubt controversial, that will allow her or him to make a strong impression and a fairly quick impact? A few suggestions:

1.Create the office of Inspector-General for Efficiency. We have every candidate for governor in the first primary talked about “rooting out the waste” and making government more efficient. And after being in office for the past thirty years, I can concur that most agencies in state government can be run more efficiently. An Inspector General can set up a mechanism to monitor state agencies for the purpose of improving productivity. The audit could be an important tool in working with state agencies at every level to “get more bang for the buck”. We used to elect a comptroller in Louisiana. An appointed position working under the direction of the governor could back up the numerous campaign promises eliminating waste and making the state system more efficient. It may even be possible to create such an office by executive order, or at a minimum, by an act of the legislature. And who would want to oppose such an idea?

2.Bring the hammer down on Indian casinos that are making outrageous profits, yet are contributing virtually nothing back to the state. Louisiana taxpayers are spending millions in support of casinos operated on Indian reservations without any return. The casinos in the state receive free police and fire protection, and taxpayers pay for the highways that bring gamblers right up to the casino front doors. Yet these Indian casinos are not paying their way. Now I know, Governor, you are going to hear the argument that the Indian tribes are immune from state enforcement. But do a little creative thinking. There are certainly some other ways to skin this cat. These tribes are subject to Louisiana’s criminal and civil laws, and creative legal minds can find some ways to see that these Indian casinos pay their fair share. What kinds of taxes are being paid by the suppliers of these casinos? Build public roads away from the casinos, or make the highways in front of the casino toll roads. Heck, there has to be some ways to deal with these problems. Your strong interest and commitment, if nothing else may bring these casinos to the bargaining table, and they will hopefully pay their fair share voluntarily. But it is an affront to the average Louisianan to see tax dollars subsidizing these casinos, all being run by out-of-state gambling interests. If they are going to operate in the state, they need to contribute.

3.Make Louisiana grade schools experimental laboratories to see how we can get better results. Why does every school system have to operate the same? We are obviously not getting the results for better schools based on the dollars we are spending. Put Louisiana in the forefront of experimentation in education.

  • First of all, pick several parishes that will convert their large, factory-styled schools that often have 1,000 students of more into smaller schools where students have closed contact with teachers. There are private grants out there to do this very thing. (Start with the Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation) Established research indicates that small class sizes - 15 or fewer – can often make a tremendous difference in producing higher test scores. Pick some key schools for experimentation; begin with classes in kindergarten through third grade. I don’t know what will happen; but let’s see what results we get.

    • Give vouchers a try in several parishes on an experimental basis. Now I know that the teachers groups are going to go bananas when you suggest this. But don’t bite the whole apple. Several parishes could try this on an experimental basis over the next several years. What do we have to loose?

    • Should local school boards be running our schools? Just look at New Orleans if you want to see a disaster in the making. Allegations are rampant of millions of dollars being ripped off with very little accountability. The Mayor of New Orleans, as are most mayors of cities throughout the state, is charged with the economic well-being of the city. A key ingredient in this economic development is the quality of the work force available. This quality is all based on education. Yet we don’t bring the mayor into the formula for developing this work force. Mayors are directly involved in picking superintendents and directing policy in public schools in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago. Why not give it a try, on an experimental basis, in a few key cities here in Louisiana?

    • All of these education suggestions are controversial and will meet with opposition. But pushing them on an “experimental” basis in a few parishes so that you can have some tangible results to evaluate just makes common sense. And the cost of all of these suggestions is minimal.

4.Call a mini-constitutional convention to re-write the state tax laws. A number of gubernatorial candidates pushed for constitutional reform over the past decade. It was a major plank in my 1987 race for governor. But little has been done. All of your good government groups feel that major tax reform is necessary. Hit the ground running by making this the first piece of legislation you sponsor. Put everything on the table. Obvious detrimental taxes (inventory tax, sales tax) need to be re-worked. But don’t shy away from the homestead exemption and other sacred cows. This could be a strong signal that by revamping the tax structure, you are offering a better climate for business development.

5.Make a commitment to wipe out adult illiteracy. We rarely hear that up to one-fifth of our population is functionaly illerate. Our emphasis has been on elementary and secondary education, but thousands of adults find it difficult to function because they just can’t read. The new governor can be an inspiration to show adult illerates that you care, and you want to work with them to overcome their problem. At least once a month, on a regular basis, you and your spouse could commit to teach classes for adult illiteracy throughout the state. You could receive tremendous and positive publicity and could accomplish a great deal towards encouraging our large illerate population to deal with this serious problem. The cost would be marginal, yet you would make a important symbolic step in dealing with a major barrier in our workforce.

6.Declare open warfare on the cost of prescription drugs. Louisiana has a high portion of its population using prescription drugs. We’re just not as healthy, and have a high proportion of older adults. Yet the cost of prescription drugs is unaffordable to many of these citizens. Governor, you can do something about it. Maine has negotiated group discounts for its medicaid population. The new governor of Illinois is making an effort to buy prescription drugs for state employees from Canada. If he is able to do this, the state will save 100 million dollars a year. Louisiana has a tremendous group to use collectively. State employees, both current and retired, as well as those citizens using the Charity hospital system give you a large group for negotiations. There are a number of ideas floating around right now. This is definitely a “good fight” to take on.

7.Don’t waste your time chasing smoke stacks. Articles are appearing in the press that the next governor should travel the world to bring in outside industry. Be careful here, Governor. It could be a loosing proposition. Alabama and Mississippi paid hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to “buy” new jobs. If your talk to economists in those states, it really hasn’t been cost effective. Taxpayers in those states will, in some instances, be paying off bonds for the next fifty years. It’s just not worth the price. Mitch Landrieu said it well during his successful campaign for Lieutenant Governor. You grow jobs from within. We need more Louisiana Technology Parks similair to the one just formed in Baton Rouge. We have the natural resources. You are the key to developing the technology that will create these new jobs within our own borders. It’s much more cost effective.

Now Governor, I’m just getting started. You will have your own agenda and priorities, but you get my drift. There is some early symbolic buttons to push. Keep fresh ideas on the front burner, and your momentum will carry you for many months to come.

There is a marvelous story about former French President Charles deGaulle. He asked his gardener to plant trees to create a certain shade effect. “But General”, the gardener protested, “the effect you have in mind cannot be achieved for forty years.” To which DeGaulle replied “well, you better start this afternoon.”

Enjoy this coming Sunday, Governor. You have your work cut out for you Monday morning. We will talk some more. Good Luck!



In my column posted September 18, I listed a series of books that would be beneficial for the next governor to read. If you followed my columns during my six-month “sabbatical” in the spring, you will note that I am a James Lee Burke fan. He writes from New Iberia, and has a stack of novels featuring Louisiana Cop Dave Robicheaux. I recently finished Jolie Blon’s Bounce, a gothic crime novel about a Cajun blues singer accused of a pair of murders.

James Lee Burke loves Louisiana. His twenty-first novel offers food for thought to the next governor.

“A love affair with Louisiana is in some ways like falling in love with the biblical whore of Babylon. We try to smile at its carnival-like politics, its sweaty, whiskey-soaked demagogues, the ignorance bred by its poverty and the insularity of its Cajun and Afro-Caribbean culture. But our self-deprecating manner is a poor disguise for the realities that hover on the edges of one’s vision like dirty smudges on a family portrait.


“The state roadsides and parking lots of discount stores are strewn, if not actually layered, with mind-numbing amounts of litter, thrown there by the poor and the uneducated and the revelers for whom a self-congratulatory hedonism is a way of life. With regularity, land developers who are accountable to no one bulldoze out stands of virgin cypress and two-hundred-year-old live oaks, often at night, so the irrevocable nature of their work cannot be seen until daylight, when it is too late to stop it. The petrochemical industry poisons waterways with impurity and even trucks in waste from out of state and dumps it in open sludge pits, usually in rural black communities.


“Rather than fight monied interests, most of the state’s politicians give their constituency casinos and Powerball lotteries and drive-by daiquiri windows, along with low income taxes for the wealthy and an eight and one quarter percent sales tax on food for the poor.”

Don’t worry Governor, all this is nothing but fiction. Hummm! You have your work cut out for you.


“We revolt at the idea of so much government power being brought to bear against one individual with a statute so vague they could drag you and me in for fudging on our United Way contributions. The crime Martha Steward now is charged with is trying to explain her side. The government’s prosecutors say Ms. Stewart should go to prison for that – after they failed to establish she did anything else wrong. And that could happen to any of us, bud!”

The Dallas Morning News

September 21, 2003


Peace and Justice to you and your family.

Jim Brown



Jim Brown’s column on Louisiana Political Life appears bi-monthly, and can be read along with previous columns and other Louisiana political news at www.politicsla.com.


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