Four governors share passion for Louisiana
Collectively, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, Edwin Edwards, Murphy "Mike" Foster, and Buddy Roemer have served as governor of Louisiana for 32 years, beginning in 1972. Since then, the United States has seen eight presidents. LSU has seen 10 head football coaches. While these four former governors may not always agree on the same route to take to serve citizens, their connection to one another in the form of their collective passion for the state is undeniable.
On Wednesday, April 17, the "Fearsome Foursome," as they were jokingly dubbed by moderator Jim Engster, joined together to appear on a panel that the LSU Public Administration Institute hosted at the Business Education Complex. Topics ranged from the state of government to the issue of income tax and also Medicaid. As one might expect, political leanings drove opinions in some instances, but each panelist was extremely forthcoming, and there was even synergy across the board in certain respects.
All four former governors agreed a major problem for the state is the loss of its best and brightest, who often have to look elsewhere for job opportunities. Roemer noted that while the majority of southern states have seen major growth in their numbers, Louisiana has gone from eight congressmen when he and Edwards were governor to six congressmen.
"Our state is disappearing," he said.
Blanco decried the state's large number of undereducated people and claimed a goal of each of the panelists had been to find ways to fully fund educational systems and healthcare statewide.
Another point the panelists agreed on was first voiced by Edwards, who stated that it's not the governor or the legislature who make final decisions. It's the public. To illustrate his point, he referenced Gov. Bobby Jindal's decision to pull his repeal of a state income tax off the table.
"When an ill-advised program can transfer the tax burden of the state from the wealthy to the poor is advanced, the public becomes aware of it and will rise to defend it or oppose it, and that's an example of what we just saw," Edwards said. "And that's the way it should be."
Foster concurred, regarding the public at least.
"That's been a good thing about Louisiana," Foster said. "It's still there, and I hope it continues. Unlike Washington, the party you belong to doesn't mean that much. It really doesn't. We have different party people who are president and speaker of the house. We have people from different parties that serve on committees and elsewhere. I always feared we would get to some place like Washington."
Roemer's opening statement about government helped lead into the income tax discussion fully.
"I really applaud Bobby Jindal for having the courage," Roemer said. "I think he was ill-prepared. I don't think it was a comprehensive plan, but he had the courage to set it on the table. We need tax reform. We need to be competitive."
Roemer suggested one way to go might be to cut income taxes for those aged 55 and older and have Louisiana become a desirable retirement state. He also saluted Jindal's education reform efforts.
"I know he's not popular now, but I salute him for what he's done in public education, for the standards that he's set, for the accountability that you started, Mike; for the fact that we can learn how to help our teachers by seeing who can teach and train those who can't," Roemer said.
The panel did not agree that the state income tax should be abolished, but the former governors did concur that tax exemptions should be scrutinized. Some of the exemptions were necessary to put the state "on a level playing field," according to Blanco, but that time has passed.
"So I really think that if we are going to reform the system, an analysis of who is forgiven an obligation of paying a fair tax should be done, and how many entities should have those tax breaks reversed," she said. "And those are not popular things to do. But those tax breaks are expenditures from the state fisc."
Edwards stated he asked the legislature to change the 25 cents per barrel of oil tax to a percentage of value of 12-and-a-half percent in 1972. At that time, oil was between $7 and $12 a barrel. Edwards said he predicted that oil would one day be $100 a barrel.
"People laughed at me," Edwards said. "I haven't heard from many of them since, though it's been at $100 for some time."
The story relates to the fact that in addition to all of the potential funding the state has already lost in that time, sales of out-of-state oil production equipment are still exempted. Edwards contends that is an exemption that should be removed. Instead of taxing the people on earning, estates, or property, a $5 surtax could be added and generate $300 million per year, he contends.
Foster agreed on the need for reform, but noted it would be difficult to pass anything that looks like a tax.
"I would suggest that probably the way we need to go is to eventually get rid of the income tax just because of the perception out there to capital, to people who want to spend money open for business," Foster said. "We're still a capitalistic country. I don't know for how long, but that is important. Those are the states that have done well. The ones who have done away with state income tax are blowing and going."
Like Foster, Roemer appeared in favor of no state income tax, noting that people can choose to live in Marshall, Texas, or Shreveport, La.
"That's 15 miles apart, and the difference is that in Marshall, they pay no state income tax, and the property tax they pay go to their schools," Roemer said. "So, it's not a wrong thing to look at ways to shake the state up and move it farther."
Noting that he feels legislators would be shocked at what our marginal tax rate would be if "we had no exemptions, no deductions, zero," Roemer stated that the plan has to be a team effort. It cannot just be the governor's plan.
"I have long believed that we need more balance between the governor and the legislature," Roemer said. "I was too strong as governor, as was each of these lady and men were. I passed every initiative. It would take me two to three times; I wasn't a very good politician like that. But we passed it. The Governor's Office was so strong. Too strong. We actually need debate on tax reform."
Roemer referenced the recently announced IBM facility that will be coming to Baton Rouge as a "game-changer" and an attraction for "young people, educated people, and people of the 21st century." This is the type of project the state needs to grow, he stated, and the discussion on how to entice further growth should include those who have been through the fires already. That group would include the four former governors who have seen their share of trials and tribulations.
"You don't learn from your victories," Roemer stated. "You learn from your mistakes."
Formally, the last topic the panel tackled was the subject of Medicaid, including Gov. Jindal's refusal of federal funds to expand the program as part of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
Blanco contended that accepting these funds for the next three years would provide coverage for more than 400,000 Louisiana citizens. That number, she said, equates to about 19 or 20 percent of the state's population who cannot afford to buy insurance on its own. After the initial three years, Blanco added, the federal government will pick up "90 or 95 percent of the costs going forward," which would still leave a bill for the state to contend with in the future.
"The hospitals need this," she said. "They're shutting down our safety net without putting another safety net in place. Very bad policy. Nobody who understands policy would ever recommend that. So we're in a very dangerous period here in Louisiana."
Both Blanco and Edwards agreed community hospitals will ultimately pick up the difference if the state does not. That will lead to longer waits and higher insurance costs all around. Edwards stated he would take any kind of program where somebody else would pay 90 percent of it, and he would only have to pay 10 percent. More so, however, the decision would be a matter of conscious, and he recounted a story about a night when a young boy showed up on his mother's doorstep with a smashed finger. She treated the boy all night long because he could not get to a doctor.
"I never forgot that," Edwards said. "I could not go to sleep at night if I thought there was some mother somewhere who had a child who was dying and she couldn't get the medical care she required. It's just the way I am. I can't apologize for that. It's the way I am."
Edwards added he hopes the governor will reconsider his position.
"Especially now that he probably isn't running for president, it wouldn't hurt him," Edwards said. "It's something we need to do for our own self-interest and for our souls.
As impassioned as Blanco and Edwards were, Foster stated it seems almost self-evident why the state should not take the funds, from what he has been told, and it has to do specifically with the lack of understanding on everyone's part as to what direction Obamacare will take. If the funding for Medicaid expansion is not taken, Foster said, those who are not covered will be absorbed by Obamacare.
"And you're only talking about 4 or 5 percent of that total group that will not be covered," Foster said. "It's just a matter of a short period of time in which they set up these medical exchanges. Once the exchanges are set-up, I am told the Obamacare situation will absorb 95 percent of the people we are talking about. If that's true, this is not a terrible decision. If it's not true, this is not a good decision."
Roemer stated unequivocally that no matter what Gov. Jindal decides, the problem will still be there and ultimately the federal government will put the costs of medical care back on the state and its citizens. The main problem is a corrupt system in which citizens cannot buy health insurance across state lines and that Congress protects insurance companies — its biggest supporters.
"And Obama's right to take it on," Roemer said. "It's a national problem. But he just failed to really get where the rocks are. Insurance companies happened to give him 23 percent of his contributions last election and 31 (percent) four years before that. Just follow the money."
Just as the four former governors smiled and took group photos prior to the panel in the courtyard of the BEC, they all smiled afterwards as they were beseeched for more group photos, interviews from media members, and attendees who asked for individual pictures and even autographs. The governors did not rush to leave. They departed separately, though still connected to each other by their passion.