Saturday, April 20, 2024

Louisiana governor hopefuls want to make the state more business – and worker – friendly 

by BIZ Magazine

By Piper Hutchinson, Louisiana Illuminator

After Louisiana was ranked as the second-to-worst state for business, candidates vying to be its next governor agree something must be done – but don’t always concur on just what the answer is. 

Five of the top contenders for governor spoke with the Illuminator about their plans to lift Louisiana from the bottom of such rankings.

Shawn Wilson, the Democratic-party endorsed candidate, said the question shouldn’t just be about policies good for corporations but also good for workers. Stephen Waguespack, a Republican who led the lobbying organization that effectively sets business and labor policy in Louisiana, said the answer lies in getting government out of business. 

But on several fronts — such as education and expanded broadband access – the candidates found consensus. 

The rankings, put out annually by CNBC, rate states in 10 categories, which are weighted based on importance.

While Louisiana ranked relatively well in some categories — coming in seventh for the cost of doing business — it performed poorly on the four most important categories: workforce, infrastructure, economy and life, health and inclusion, which considered factors such as quality of life, worker protections, discrimination laws and, for the first time ever, reproductive rights

Attorney General Jeff Landry, the Louisiana Republican Party-endorsed candidate, was unavailable for an interview for this article. 

Competitive workforce 

Wilson said Louisiana’s output on the workforce front is still recovering, both from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and cuts to higher education made during Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure, when support for public colleges and universities was shifted from the state to the student. 

State Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, believes workforce development has to start early, which is why he supports universal pre-K and emphasizing literacy in early childhood. He said he believes these investments will give young people the boost they need to pursue a post-secondary education that will lead to well-paying jobs. 

“We really need to expand that, I think, to really close the kind of generational gaps that’s caused by poverty in the state,” Nelson said. 

Nelson said he also supports dramatically increasing state support for the community and technical college system. 

“It’s a very minimal amount of money to, you know, really fund it and have basically a minimal tuition so that the students have some skin in the game, but it’s not a barrier to entry,” Nelson said. 

State Treasurer John Schroder, a Republican from Covington, agreed with Nelson’s assessment that education has to start early. 

“Once these kids get into the pipeline and they’re behind, they stay behind, they very rarely catch up,” Schroder said. “So we need to start initially with early entry into the education system.” 

State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, said the top concern she hears from business leaders and site selectors is a lack of an educated workforce.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 25% of Louisianians over the age of 25 have at least a four-year college degree, which can pose a problem when the state looks to recruit companies. 

Hewitt touted a bill she sponsored in 2022 that would allow TOPS scholarship candidates to substitute computer coding for their foreign language requirement. Hewitt said focusing on science, technology, engineering and math education is key. 

“We need to kind of reimagine how we deliver education at the high school and the two-year and the four-year programs because the needs of our employers are changing so quickly,” Hewitt said. 

Waguespack agreed that the state’s workforce is not meeting the needs of job creators. He floated the idea of partnering with companies to revamp employment training in high schools and recommended universities focus on addressing the needs of its regional economy. 

Waguespack also wants to set up regional centers where people can go to be connected to resources to aid them in getting additional professional credentials. 

“It’s the government’s duty to bend to the people’s needs, not force the people to bend to the government’s bureaucracy,” Waguespack said. 

“As Governor, we will nurture our homegrown talent — because when we have a safe Louisiana that supports local talent, we will have a growing economy that naturally attracts new businesses,” Landry said in a statement shared through his press secretary. 

Quality of life & inclusivity

Waguespack said he doesn’t think Louisiana’s strict abortion laws have had an impact on the state’s attractiveness to businesses and workers, but he feels the state could do a lot to increase quality of life. 

He also said the CNBC analysis didn’t do enough to factor in Louisiana’s Southern charm. 

“People here are very welcoming, you know, the community treats strangers as neighbors almost overnight,” Waguespack said. “And especially if some crisis hits, people lean on each other, and they rally around each other very quickly.” 

Wilson slammed the legislature for passing legislation targeting LGBTQ+ people, which he classified as exclusionary. 

“We don’t need to be discriminating against people,” Wilson said. “We need to be building on this health care model and addressing the real health outcomes that are challenging more than 50% of our population.” 

“Until we start addressing those issues, we can’t expect this needle to move on this factor with what we’re seeing,” Wilson added. 

Wilson also said he has heard from medical professionals who have decided to relocate because of Louisiana’s abortion ban. It’s one of the nation’s strictest that went into effect last year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Other medical professionals have raised concerns on the effect the ban will have on recruiting aspiring health care providers to complete their education and training in the state, he said. 

The good news is that unlike in the infrastructure and workforce categories, Wilson said, some changes could have an immediate impact in making the state more inclusive and enticing to business. 

Nelson agreed the state’s strict abortion laws don’t make us more appealing to businesses and suggested that instituting rape and incest exceptions would make the state more attractive to new residents. 

While Nelson thought worker protections matter somewhat, he believes more people care about high wages and quality education. 

While Schroder said he doesn’t think the state’s strict abortion ban has had any impact on business, he thinks quality of life could be improved by addressing crime. 

“The crime is a reflection of our poor, uneducated population,” Schroder said. “The root cause of many of our problems is that there’s a poor education system.” 

Schroder also emphasized the need for strong communities. 

“You can’t attract people with new jobs, solely on money alone, because I no longer believe that it’s just about the money,” Schroder said. “I think it has more to do with community and safe schools.” 

Hewitt said no business leaders she’s spoken to have raised concerns about the state’s abortion laws. Louisiana should look to improving its education and health outcomes to make the state more appealing to workers, she said. 

“We’ve done the Medicaid expansion, people have access to health care, but we need better outcomes,” Hewitt said. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, expanded access to Medicaid as one of his first acts in office in 2016, an action that some Republicans criticized. 

Hewitt said she would also continue prioritizing broadband expansion, another of Edwards’ priorities, as she believes broadband access is key to health and education access in rural areas. 

Building it up 

The state’s top infrastructure priority needs to be repairing and maintaining its bridge infrastructure, Hewitt said, pointing out that over 100 bridges around the state are currently shut down and impeding commerce. 

Waguespack agreed with that assessment, adding that the state’s port infrastructure also needs attention. 

“We also know we have a number of ports in this state that need to be aligned under our master strategic plans,” Waguespack said. “We need to compete with areas like Mobile and Houston for international traffic.” 

Nelson believes infrastructure decisions should be handled on a local level, arguing that it would be more efficient for local leaders than state government to decide where the money goes. The current system of having lawmakers advocating for pet projects in their district isn’t cutting it, he added. 

Wilson, the former transportation secretary under Edwards, said the state has already started to make improvements on the infrastructure front, pointing to investments in Mississippi River dredging and work on the interstate system. He also touted investments in the state’s broadband infrastructure, which has increased internet access in the state’s rural parishes. 

Wilson pointed out that the state has additional revenue streams going to infrastructure, which will help Louisiana turn a corner on its problems. 

“You won’t get the effect of any of these projects that I just mentioned, for the next five to eight years, then you will see that score change on infrastructure,” Wilson said. 

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