Wednesday, November 16, 2005

History haunts

My column this week considers the context of Louisiana's post-hurricane troubles. The column is a litany of opportunities missed by the state in recent years. Encouraging signs from the legislature in the last 24 hours notwithstanding (budget cuts, controls for NOLA schools) the column is a reminder that the current crisis was a long time in the making:

Amid statewide coverage of Louisiana’s displaced populations, post-hurricane upheavals, and dire financial straits, one thing is missing. The state’s governmental, electoral, judicial, educational, fiscal and reputational crisis requires context. So here’s an attempt at context in 500 words or less: It’s not a bold insight to observe that Louisiana has a checkered political past. Nor is it profound to note the challenges facing Louisiana are of a magnitude rarely seen in American history. Still there doesn’t seem to be much state-led urgency about the whole thing. And if there’s no urgency emanating from this disaster’s ground zero, why should the rest of the country care? If the issues aren’t important enough to call the state legislature into session until almost three months after the disaster, why should the rest of the country rush to commit to long-term rebuilding projects? If issues aren’t urgent enough for the state legislature to stay in session through the week-end, why should anyone outside Louisiana take seriously assertions about the dire state of affairs around here? If recovery isn’t important enough to make legislators loosen their grip on pet projects, why should American taxpayers be expected to ante up? It’s about more than hurricanes. In recent years, Louisiana has had ample opportunity to help itself. It could have reduced the tax burden on private businesses. It could have acknowledged that official rhetoric about new times in Louisiana didn’t reflect reality on the ground – something public opinion surveys suggested the rest of the country knew anyway. It could have slashed state employee rolls. The legislature could have welcomed statements from voters that they intended to hold lawmakers accountable for their votes. The legislature could have voted to implement charter schools in New Orleans. Louisiana could have begun tackling the poverty problem by getting serious about teacher pay and other predictors of improved education performance instead of pouring money into education administration and poverty summits. It could have saved money by eliminating one of the state’s annual elections. It could have implemented more than half-step measures to reform the state’s indigent defense system. The inspector general and legislative auditor could have been quickly replaced to track government behavior, waste and fraud – actions that might have prevented the embarrassing misappropriation of $30 million in federal monies intended for homeland security. Louisiana could have prioritized education and health care instead of slush funds. It could have said no to state-funded sugar mills, convention center hotels and reservoirs. It could have passed serious ethical guidelines for public officials – guidelines which would now be in play for post-hurricane reconstruction efforts. So, Louisiana, go easy on the rest of the country for its reluctance to pour more money into the state’s seemingly bottomless and accountability-free public trough. Lawmakers in DC and their constituents across the country can’t be blamed for taking a cautious approach to Louisiana’s pleas for a bailout. The sad fact is many across the country probably believe Louisiana’s finally reaped what it’s sown.