Jim Beam column: Landry facing major challenges

Published 6:41 am Saturday, December 30, 2023

Gov. John Bel Edwards is definitely leaving Louisiana in much better shape than he found it eight years ago, but his work isn’t finished.

The governor’s successes came in restoring sanity to the state’s finances, a low 3.5% unemployment rate, higher per capita income, an increased gross domestic product, and at 9.4%, one of the country’s lowest rates of uninsured persons, accomplishments listed by The Advocate.

Higher education that was decimated after nearly eight years of major budget cuts during the Gov. Bobby Jindal administration saw its financial situation much improved over the last eight years. Edwards and the Legislature directed more money to early education.

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Local governments benefited when Edwards reformed the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP) to give them 20% of the property taxes they had been losing and a voice in whether exemptions should be made.

Edwards believes that climate change is real, and he succeeded in bringing new sources of energy to the state. He supported legislative changes to the criminal justice system and improved internet access for many thousands of Louisianans.

James Carville, 79, a Democratic strategist in New Orleans who helped Bill Clinton become president in 1993, offered a summary of Edwards’ legacy in The Advocate news report.

Carville said, “I think that he’s the best governor of my lifetime, which covers a lot of territory.”

Not everyone agrees, of course, but that’s politics. However, what are the challenges faced by incoming Republican Gov.-elect Jeff Landry?

The newspaper in its Edwards legacy story said the most recent census figures show that Louisiana’s population growth continues to lag behind that of the country and especially neighboring states.

“Several categories of Louisiana’s most vulnerable citizens — juvenile offenders, children needing protection from abusive adults and inmates due to be released — didn’t consistently receive the attention they needed,” the report said.

Those are issues on which Landry should concentrate. However, some Republican lawmakers have said they want to try to undo much of what Edwards has done.

Stopping population losses should be No. 1 on their to-do lists or we are going to lose another member of Congress after the next census. Nearly 14,300 fewer people lived in Louisiana in the summer of 2023 than the year before, according to nola.com. There has been a total population drop of more than 84,000 since the 2020 census, according to new estimates released last week.

The state’s population has been mostly on the decline since 2016 and over the past three years have seen dramatic drops, the news report said. Those declines were caused by high mortality rates during the pandemic and more people moving out of the state than moving in.

Allison Plyer, chief demographer at The Data Center in New Orleans, said reducing the state’s relatively high mortality rate through policies to reduce infant deaths, overdoses and traffic fatalities — among other causes should be a focus. The birth rate in Louisiana has been declining for nearly a decade, a trend that continued through 2023.

The news report said about 50,000 Louisianans died last year, according to estimates, a drop from the nearly 57,000 people who died in each of the first two years of the pandemic. But it’s still almost 10% higher than the number that died in 2019 and earlier years.

Louisiana’s slow decline comes in contrast to the South as a whole, which grew faster than  any other region of the country. Since 1980, Louisiana has grown by only 10% while the nation as a whole has grown by more than 40%.

Growth rates in South Carolina, Florida, and Texas have been bolstered by significant in-migration. Louisiana has been losing residents to other states. Almost 30,000 more people moved out of Louisiana than moved in last year. It lost 47,500 more people than it gained the year before.

Turning the situation around could be difficult, according to Plyer. She said it will take improving the education system, providing economic opportunities, taking advantage of emerging forms of energy, and reducing death rates.

Landry blames crime in large Louisiana cities, lack of jobs, and problems with the education system for the state’s  population decline. If he and his Republican colleagues in the Legislature focus on those issues, they should see some positive changes in those areas.

Edwards said, “I hope that Jeff Landry is wildly successful. I hope our state is doing better than ever, and it would never occur to me to run (again). That’s what I hope. That’s what I pray for. But it’s not what I believe is most likely to happen.”

A better state is what all of us hope for. Will Landry prove Edwards wrong?


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