Now that the fanfare of Louisiana’s quadrennial oath-taking is done, the posing and flexing toward selecting the state’s House and Senate strongmen is finished, and the college football championship has been decided, could we please start making a concerted effort to consider and prepare for what Louisiana’s future could (and should) be?
How many years have we been hearing the litany of “Louisiana is at the bottom of all the ‘good’ lists”? The statement itself no longer packs the punch of a wake-up call, having – by way of frequent repetitions – been transmuted to a slogan of sorts, with more than a few officials almost seeming perversely proud of that distinction, rather than becoming energized to try and change the rankings. In the most recent election season, some campaigns used it as a talking point to blame their opponents for having brought us to this sad state of affairs. Not surprisingly, though, none of the candidates using this trope offered any visions of methods or modalities that could improve Louisiana’s standings in quality-of-life metrics.
Our state’s dismal standings in all those metrics, when viewed as an outcomes-based evaluation, emphasizes the lack of time and effort Louisiana policymakers and lawmakers have devoted to envisioning the future. Ask them what they see this “gret stet” looking like, as of 2025, or 2030, or 2050, and they haven’t a clue. Instead, as has been the case for the past several years, the vast majority appear to be focusing exclusively on the here and now, except when focusing on the past, as they actively try to turn the clock back.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, in his second inaugural address, did offer some forward-thinking goals.
“I want to challenge this new legislature and the people of Louisiana to think boldly and to envision a Louisiana with a fully diversified economy, a steady reduction in poverty and an educational system that prepares our people for jobs and careers that will keep them here at home,” he said on Monday, January 13, 2020. And he also listed specific paths that could get the state closer to those goals.
“We know that education is the key to economic opportunity and that a pathway to prosperity must begin at the earliest stages of life. That is why the highest priority for new investments in education of my second term will be early childhood education,” the governor said. “We are also going to better fund every level of education.
“We also know that $7.25 an hour is not a meaningful wage,” he continued, then noted that 21 other states had increased their minimum wage for 2020. “Congress has made it clear that they are out of the business, so if we want our workers to get the pay they deserve, it’s up to us here in this Capitol. Yet we can’t stop there. Louisiana has the largest gender wage gap in the country. That offends me and it should offend you too. I will continue to advocate for equal pay for equal work.”
In addition, Edwards voiced support for prioritizing funding ongoing needs such as transportation infrastructure, coastal restoration, workforce development, and cybersecurity – nearly all of which he endeavored to address during his first term, so they aren’t new goals. Yet they’ve remained unaccomplished mostly as a result of the Edwards’ administration having been hamstrung by the fiscal crises left by his predecessor, and exacerbated by the recalcitrance of an ultra-conservative faction in the state House.
Many of those anti-taxers have returned for this term, and while the make-up of the House money committees remain to be seen, some of the returning lawmakers have already started talking about rollbacks of the 0.45 of a penny of sales tax, presently set to expire in 2025. Their reason? They are offended by any state revenue surplus. (Remember, these are members of the Republican Party, whose tax policies, when implemented at the federal level, where there’s no requirement for a balanced budget as there is in Louisiana state law, result in massive deficits. The federal deficit is presently in excess of 23-trillion dollars.)
It’s not a matter of the GOP-faithful, the power-brokers and their lobbyists not knowing what awaits Louisiana in the future, if policies continue on their present course. They know. But that future can be frightening for those desperately grasping to retain power and control, and so the only direction they want the state heading is backward, to a time when “everyone knew their place.”
Think I’m joking? Louisiana’s lawmakers have provided so many policy examples of their romances with retrogression, their love affairs with looking back can be seen as the legislative equivalent of the Hallmark Channel.
Since 2006, Louisiana has had a “trigger law” on the books, designed to go into effect when (not if) the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. It reinstates the criminal penalties in effect in 1973: ten years at hard labor for anyone performing a termination of pregnancy, except to save the life of the mother. With subsequent anti-abortion laws continually facing challenges to their legality, they’ve have had to be carefully placed in other sections of the law books than the trigger law. If placed in the same section of Louisiana statutes as the trigger law, then when the newer laws are struck down (as many of them have been), as expressions of the “most recent will of the Legislature”, they don’t take the trigger law down with them.
In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Edwards v. Aguillard decision, struck down Louisiana’s 1981 “Balanced Treatment Act,” which required equal public classroom time be given to the teaching of creationism and evolution. Since it had been ruled unconstitutional, in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 efforts to do some housecleaning, state Sen. Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge) brought a bill to remove the law from the books. In 2016, Sen. John Milkovich (D-Keithville) argued against the repeal, saying, “The U.S. Supreme Court has been known to change their mind: look at ‘separate but equal.’ We need to keep this on the books just in case.” Milkovich prevailed.
In 1956, during the “Red Menace” paranoia of McCarthyism, Congress voted to start putting “In God We Trust” on U.S. money. In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in Engel v. Vitale) against official prayers in public schools. But in 2018, Louisiana’s Legislature passed SB 224, which requires instruction on, and display of the motto “In God We Trust” in public schools.
And one only needs to review a small portion of the legislative committee and floor testimony and debates on 2018’s SB 243, by Sen. J.P. Morrell – the constitutional amendment to require unanimous jury verdicts in felony trials – to recognize how difficult it is, even in this 21st century, to get Louisiana’s clocks turning forward and away from 19th century Jim Crow laws, rather than letting our clocks continue to spin backward.
What can we do to prepare Louisiana for the next decade, for the next quarter century, when the future is so uncertain?
In upcoming installments of this series, we’ll look into what we know – and what is suspected – for this state’s future, as well as some major and minor policy proposals to address some of those things.