FBI: Former Gov. John McKeithen arranged payments to Ku Klux Klan to quell violence in 1960s _lowres

Gov. McKeithen, right, appears to be searching for a ready answer to a school teacher delegation in his office Monday. The teacher leaders called on the governor to seek his support of their demands for full implementation of a $1,100-a year average pay boost. McKeithen has introduced in the new special legislative session bills to provide for only half of the increase. Mrs. Sara Towles Reed of New Orleans, a veteran of 40 years' lobbying for teacher needs in the legislature, leads the delegation calling on the governor. Photo by John Dobbs

Jim Engster of “Talk Louisiana” has been gathering the opinions of folks around town about the last 10 governors, and it was my turn last week to rank them.

Thinking about where Louisiana is now and how the state got here through looking at the last 10 governors is a good exercise for voters going into the Oct. 12 elections for governor and the 144 members of the Louisiana Legislature.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone can’t wait to prove that incumbent Gov. John Bel Edward’s “failed record is the reason why Louisiana is ranked last in every important metric,” Anthony Ramirez, his spokesman, said Thursday.

But history shows reliance on oil money and a lack of vision play important roles in Louisiana’s low standing on the various rankings.

When Gov. John McKeithen took over in 1964, he used modest tax incentives and access to fossil fuels to persuade petrochemical plants to locate along the Mississippi River. When he took over in 1972, Gov. Edwin W. Edwards raised taxes on oil production during skyrocketing prices to fund an expansion of services and support for education. His personal scandals, however, sidetracked taking the next step.

Edwards controlled the Legislature during Gov. Dave Treen’s term and was elected again. But as his third term began in 1984, the price of oil collapsed and left the state one paycheck from bankruptcy.

It was up to Gov. Buddy Roemer, who took office in 1988, to stabilize the finances. He updated the state’s financial structure, such as establishing an independent board to determine how much money was available to spend, but he ended up being defeated for reelection.

Oil prices rose through Gov. Mike Foster’s term. Gov. Kathleen Blanco ended her four years with a huge surplus.

Wanting to be transformative, Gov. Bobby Jindal cut taxes to spur the economy. Perhaps another drop in oil prices kept that dream from happening, but it certainly exacerbated the budget, leading to a reduction of about two-thirds of the state’s appropriation to higher education.

Jindal expanded public school vouchers and imposed standards on teachers, but failed to follow through on additional changes because of his presidential aspirations, says Metairie state Sen. Conrad Appel.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, the current incumbent, was called upon to fix nearly a decade of deficits. He cut spending and raised sales taxes. But he also got help from a modest rebound in the price of oil and natural gas, proving once again that Louisiana remains dependent on oil and gas.

It’d be fair to say that Louisiana’s fiscal situation is caused by what economists call the “resource curse.”

Basically, the theory goes that many countries, or in this case a state, with a lot of oil and natural gas live large off the abundance and never pursue the development that leads to economic growth.

“What would Texas do” is a popular refrain among Louisiana politicos, but it’s mostly applied as an argument against increasing taxes.

What Texas did was funnel much of the proceeds from high property taxes and oil production into higher education, good roads and investments in other industries. The Texas Medical Center in Houston, for instance, a Lone Star state project, now employs more than 100,000 people, most of whom have advanced degrees with mid-six figure annual incomes.

Sixty years and 10 governors ago, Louisiana was ahead of North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia in most metrics. In terms of family median income, a reflection of how much businesses pay their employees, Louisiana ranked 39th in 1960 at $4,722, ahead of those three states that Louisiana now trails, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

By 2017, Louisiana had fallen to 49th with $46,145, which is $14,191 lower than the national average of $60,336. And that number has barely budged since 2005, when Louisiana’s median household income was $46,215.

What happened during that time period?

North Carolina famously invested in education and research. Its leading families helped fund universities: the Dukes of American Tobacco poured money into Duke University; and the Reynolds, makers of Winston cigarettes, grew Wake Forest University. Now, along with the publicly financed University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that state’s three main universities rank in the top 20 on pretty much every list. LSU is routinely ranks 100-something.

What North Carolina and Texas did back in the 1950s and 1960s was agree on a plan, persuaded residents it was worth paying for, and stuck with it.

None of Louisiana’s last 10 governors, including the present one, have articulated a vision, much less tried to persuade taxpayers of the need for a big project.

In this campaign, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards argues he’s better than Jindal. Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham argues he’s better than Edwards. And Rispone supports building a wall along Mexico’s border with Texas.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.