“Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” That statement helped President Ronald Reagan to be elected in 1980.
What may not be remembered so well is that in 1980, Louisiana was on the cusp of an epic collapse in the price of oil. It reduced the state budget to a shambles and among other misfortunes brought Edwin W. Edwards back to the Governor’s Mansion in 1984.
Can John Bel Edwards, or his challengers, use the Reaganesque construction in 2019?
There long has been a bit of a low-level political warfare over the economy and state budget policy, with Edwards critics like U.S. Sen. John N. Kennedy, R-Madisonville, among the most captious, comparing Louisiana’s economic progress with other states, which often rebounded better from the recession of 2008-09.
“Private sector job growth is among the lowest in the country. Too many of our kids can’t read their diplomas,” Kennedy said in October.
But the governor has responded frequently with a barrage of other statistics.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that Louisiana wage growth was still up in the third quarter, at 2.3 percent, but smaller than most every state. The governor rejoined by noting that personal income grew at a rate of 6.6 percent in the first quarter this year and 4.8 percent in the second quarter.
So are you better off than you were four years ago?
Well, if you’re a soybean farmer, President Donald Trump’s trade war is not doing you any favors. The governor is quite correct that a fall in farm income, $101 million, hurt the third-quarter number from BEA.
“Louisiana’s economy has been steadily improving, evidenced by our decline in unemployment and our growth in gross domestic product,” the governor said, although noting the impact of tariff wars.
But bad weather can affect farm income sharply, even without an erratic presidential trade policy.
Does the overall number matter?
It is a political fact of life that prosperity unevenly spread has differing electoral consequences.
Because the price of natural gas is low, industrial construction is booming along the Mississippi and Calcasieu rivers. That means jobs and wage growth. Governors in other states might build their reelection campaigns around one multibillion-dollar construction project; Edwards has been showered with many, chemical plants and gas export facilities among them.
Because the price of oil is low, and skidded sharply again at the end of this year, the oil patch of Acadiana and the Houma-Thibodaux area is recovering slowly from the oil price collapse of late 2014. That recovery is part of what the governor calls the steadily improving economy, but politically those parishes — and Acadiana might be a key swing vote next fall — probably aren’t feeling the love.
Louisiana is historically not a wealthy state. We get hurt in recessions less but also don’t rebound as high. The stock market collapse this year will have at least some political effect, although the Federal Reserve economists clearly feel that the markets aren’t reading sound fundamentals in the overall economy.
Timing is everything, and chief executives — including governors — rarely have a great deal to do with the economic tides except try to tread water in them.
Still, Louisiana is an oil and gas state. Was John Bel Edwards fortunate, through no fault of his own, that oil fell long enough ago that four years of recovery at least mitigates the political impact?