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The south entrance to LSU's campus on Dalrymple Drive, Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Baton Rouge.

Years ago, Baton Rouge businessman Jim Bernhard told a story of how a classmate of his ended up as president of the Senate in North Carolina. Bernhard, a supporter of LSU and higher education, was frustrated by Louisiana’s unwillingness to pay the bills for competitive colleges and asked his old friend how it was done in North Carolina.

“First, we fund the colleges,” was the reply. “Then we do everything else.”

That’s called priorities. It works. We don’t get it.

The Bernhard story came to mind as Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, launched yet another initiative to get Louisiana off the bottom of the rankings of the states.

“What is our vision?” Erwin said. “Do we even have one?”

As Erwin noted the advantages we have as a state, like the energy industry and the Mississippi River, he perhaps unwittingly echoed former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was continually peeved by casual references to Louisiana as a poor state.

Jindal had a point: We are in many ways a rich state, just with a lot of poor people in it.

That means initiatives like expansion of Medicaid to working families made sense, but Jindal — pursuing a run for president — declined to embrace it. He also pushed a crude version of supply-side economics, slashing taxes without regard for the need for funding of institutions like colleges.

Erwin noted Louisiana’s poor ratings, such as the second-highest rate of poverty, and 49th as the best state for jobs. His group, combining with the Public Affairs Research Council and the Committee of 100 for Economic Development, plans to publish in April a four-part agenda for state progress.

They hope that the candidates for governor and Legislature in the fall elections will support a specific set of changes to push Louisiana off the bottom of the good lists and the top of the bad lists, as former Gov. Buddy Roemer used to say.

Tellingly, in light of the Bernhard story, Erwin noted that turning around the state means becoming competitive not so much with rich Northern states but our friends like Kentucky, ranked 41st or so on many of the same lists where we’re farther down.

But Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia all rank significantly better than Louisiana or Kentucky. It is a longstanding divergence of economic fortunes in the Deep South, between the coastal states of the Atlantic seaboard (and Tennessee) and the poorer Delta South, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas (and Alabama).

Our Views: Jeopardizing funding for colleges shortchanges both students' and state's futures

North Carolina is one of the places that the Baton Rouge Area Chamber chose for a delegation to visit, as Raleigh-Durham and the Research Triangle area is a booming region, a leading place in the South as a magnet for intellectual talent.

Their problems there are mostly from growth, like housing and public transportation, but though every state is different, they have significantly higher taxes overall — meaning that they are putting money into higher-quality public services.

Which leads us back to universities, public and private. The immense economic and social impact of the University of North Carolina makes Chapel Hill a synonym for education as well as basketball. Same goes for the private Duke and the public North Carolina State universities.

Funding such research institutions is not easy, even with priorities in order. But the payoff from those institutions is surely one part of the difference between Louisiana’s ratings and those of North Carolina.

In a knowledge economy, how are the smarts going to be paid for? That’s the vision question.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.

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