Since taking office in May, Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer has balanced a state budget for the first time in the 1980s. He has steered a package of reforms through the Legislature, including political campaign reform and education reform. But he lost his most important battle--overhauling the state’s populist taxing structure.
Here, in excerpts from an interview with Associated Press regional reporter Scott McCartney, Roemer discusses his goals and concerns for Louisiana from his Baton Rouge office.
Question: What are you trying to do to this state? It seems like there’s a revolution going on.
Answer: It really is. . . . We inherited the highest unemployment rate in America and a budget that was in shambles for a variety of reasons. For example, the price of oil in last year’s budget was $21 a barrel. Oil never saw $21. It was a phony figure which (worsened) the deficit. We’ve got it (oil, which is now about $17 a barrel) at $13.80. That’s how tough we are. . . .
As a result, I think the business community in the state and outside of the state knows that something’s happening in Louisiana. Our unemployment rate is beginning to go down. It was above 12% when I took office. It’s now about 9.5%.
Q: Is it the attitudes in the state that you’re bumping up against?
A: We had a state, and I love Louisiana, but we had a state where big money beat big ideas, and that’s a loser. We’re trying to reverse it. It’s not done. We’ve got a ways to go. We need to rewrite our tax code to give businesses incentives to grow jobs. I tried. . . . I failed by a close margin. We’ll try it again and win it.
When we do that, all of the ingredients will be in place. . . . Watch us. I want to warn Texas and the other states of the Southwest. Watch us.
Q: Is it fair to say what you’re really doing is throwing out the past, throwing out the populist government, throwing out the legacy of Huey Long?
A: Right, in part. I want to be fair to Huey because he had many great points. Huey built the roads in this state to tie farms to market. He gave children free textbooks. So when we say we’re breaking with the past, I really don’t think of Huey Long. I do think of the populist strain where there’s something for nothing and everybody else pays the bill. We are trying to break from that. . . . I believe in paying our own way. That is a break from Louisiana tradition. It doesn’t come easy.
Q: What would happen if tax reform doesn’t pass?
A: It would be more of the same. We’d be a slave to Saudi Arabia. We’d be a slave to how many times OPEC can get together and jack the price around. We’d be a wasteland, a welfare state. Those who are without hope, those who are without means, won’t move--they can’t, they’re stuck. Those with an education, with financial mobility, are going to vote with their feet. They’re going to leave. And for the first time the politicians are beginning to realize that.
Every bear in the forest, I’ve poked. Now is the time to do it. There are some who think that if I do my job right, I could never get elected to another public office.
Q: Do you believe it?
A: Might be true.
Q: Do you care?
A: I don’t. . . . I would be totally satisfied four years from now to prop my feet up on the desk and say, “Well done.”
Q: Do you think things can turn around that quickly?
A: Yes, in terms of public perception and attitude. That’s the real fight. The fight is not the unemployment rate that goes up and down with national trends and a lot of things out of our control. You’ll see an improvement over four years and fairly dramatic. But what needs to turn around is attitude.
I found many people in this state who had given up, who felt Louisiana could not change, who felt that we were a slave to our past, who felt that the populist politicians owned Louisiana. They’re beginning to realize now that we are winners. Not me, we. This state’s a winner.