042418 Formosa Petrochemical plant.jpg

For the economic analysts, the location of a giant new Formosa plant in St. James Parish, promising 1,200 permanent jobs, is a function of objective factors. There is the Mississippi River and Louisiana’s network of pipelines, the neighboring petrochemical manufacturing complex between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

For the politicians, it’s the incentives that are given the company — Formosa is already a big industrial producer in East Baton Rouge and Pointe Coupee parishes — and Louisiana’s traditionally business-friendly environment.

It’s the last that makes the new announcement of political importance, for to hear some business groups tell it, Gov. John Bel Edwards is sabotaging economic development in Louisiana.

It’s not just the tax debate in the State Capitol although that is a factor. Businesses must pay attention to the bottom line, and an increase in taxes is noticed, even if it is — as in most of Edwards' budget proposals — simply making big business pay the taxes they would owe but for tax breaks.

As some disgruntled environmentalists noted, there are still plenty of tax breaks available to multinational corporations willing to invest in Louisiana, for Formosa and for other businesses.

There is also the obvious tie between Edwards and the trial lawyer lobby, archfoe of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

Here’s how Stephen Waguespack of LABI put it a few months ago: “Hand-selected attorneys are broadly attacking numerous energy companies that have legally operated with coastal use permits in Louisiana for years, rather than seeking to penalize specific actions or bad actors. And the pursuit of lawsuits didn’t stop there, parishes are now being pressured by the governor’s team to do the same. This litigious behavior by state government itself is simply unprecedented and unacceptable.”

Perhaps a fair criticism. Sometimes our lawyer governor's reaction to a problem is to sue it.

But what matters politically?

As Waguespack and other Edwards critics probably know, it’s difficult to change an image of a governor making big job-creation announcements like Formosa in St. James Parish and DXC, the new technology company that hopes to put 2,000 jobs into an office tower on Poydras Street in New Orleans. Smaller announcements in places like Hodge in north Louisiana, for a timber mill, in 2017 are also important politically.

The governor has been talking up his job-creation efforts a lot lately, but timing means a lot in terms of the impact of the message.

A stronger economy, with even the Acadiana region, now recovering from the oil price crash of a few years ago, is going to help an incumbent. Waguespack's former boss, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, started the process of wooing Formosa, but it is his successor who got to make the announcement.

Coming as they do in mid-2018, and with Edwards up for re-election in 2019, these latest announcements are manna from political heaven, even as the coastal lawsuits are little-noticed outside industry circles.

In the case of the $9.4 billion Formosa plant in St. James, construction and consequent hiring is likely to be started next year, in between the big voting centers of metropolitan New Orleans and Baton Rouge, just in time for the run-up to the 2019 primary in the fall.

These are big jobs wins for the governor, and are likely to benefit him. And they rather draw the sting of conservative charges that he is anti-business.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.