Much was made in last fall’s campaign of a U.S. News & World Report ranking that named Louisiana as the worst state in the nation.
Republicans blamed Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. Democrats blamed former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.
But Ben Nevers knew the real reason was Louisiana’s fast failing rural parishes and towns, mostly north of Interstates 10 and 12. The fault lay with the neglect of generations from both parties more focused on building up economies in the state’s metro areas.
As a former Washington Parish legislator, the alarm Nevers sounded for years fell on deaf ears. He now has a chance to be heard.
Nevers was recently named to chair a gubernatorial panel tasked with developing a strategic plan by January 2021 to reverse the spiral in Louisiana’s countryside, which takes up about 80% of the state’s landmass.
The U.S. News & World Report put more than 70 statistics into a formula whose sum equaled Louisiana’s failure.
The state scored well on many of the data points. For instance, Louisiana ranked 14th nationwide for having the lowest tax burden when considering the accumulative corporate income, personal income, sales, property and other taxes.
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What dragged down the rankings were metrics like median household income and poverty.
The median household income nationally is $60,336, while Louisiana’s is about 23% lower at $46,145. In East Baton Rouge Parish, median household income is $52,947 and $53,950 in Lafayette. But the numbers plummet when averaged in with rural parishes like Claiborne’s $26,877 and Madison’s $29,424.
Louisiana’s poverty rate is 19.7% while the national average is 13.4%. Natchitoches Parish is 44.7%. Jefferson Parish is 16.3%.
(To be fair, it’s not all rural. Louisiana ranked the highest in the nation in terms of industrial toxins — 3,331 pounds per square mile, compared to the national average of 1,015 — and in the number of unhealthy air quality days.)
“I’m angered at always being at the bottom of the rankings,” Nevers said.
“Much of (the) economic development we have emphasized has been on the Mississippi River and gas and oil,” he said. “We’ve given millions, billions in tax breaks to all sorts of companies, some of which we haven’t seen a return on investment, more jobs. But we’ve done nothing, or very little, for the rurals.”
The governor named his former chief of staff, Ben Nevers, Friday to chair a task force to start revitalizing Louisiana’s failing rural communities.
Literally, dozens of blue-ribbon panels have convened in Baton Rouge over the years and the results have been negligible.
Nevers said he had to be assured by the governor before accepting the chairmanship on Feb. 14 that the 34-member Advisory Council on Rural Revitalization would actually accomplish something. He wanted cabinet level agency heads to participate rather than send a staffer and he wanted legislators to be part of the effort.
He was Edwards first chief of staff until illness forced his retirement. “I’m not interested in returning to Baton Rouge for another dog and pony show. I am interested in action,” said Nevers, whose cancer is in abeyance.
Nevers said the task force will be broken into subcommittees that will study what has been overlooked and its impact, such as poor infrastructure spending — highways and bridges get money largely based on usage, which is greater in the metro areas — crumbling schools and poorly paid teachers, the lack of internet access and low tax base. They’ll also look at the budgets for the Department of Agriculture & Forestry, which have been slashed annually for more than a decade. It’s the unaddressed consolidation of farms and new technology since the 1970s that has thrown tens of thousands of people out of work and started the decline in rural areas.
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The panel will come up with short-term options and a five-year plan. “We’ll have a strategic plan and some of it will require legislative action. And there will have to be bench marks of what needs to be achieved annually,” Nevers said.
Fortuitously, many of the new legislators will come to Baton Rouge for the annual session beginning March 9 with a goal of repairing rural woes. And House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, is well aware of the problems as the former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Edwards, another small towner, said he wants to start moving on rural redevelopment while the committee creates its plan.
For instance, the state Department of Transportation & Development over the next three years will be spending more than $100 million above the ordinary highway priority program to repair rural bridges and fix rural highways.
“We’re already doing things that we know are good for rural Louisiana. We just want to be more focused on a variety of things that we can do,” Edwards said about the Nevers Council.