A “lost decade” for Louisiana.

When one of the policy leaders at the State Capitol, Barry Erwin, used that phrase almost casually, it should have been a cause for chills and dismay for anyone who wants the state of Louisiana to grow and progress.

It’s not as though we’ve not lost decades before. Hard decisions deferred have cost Louisiana for many years. That’s shown by rankings like 49th in educational achievement among the states, or the second-highest poverty rate in the nation.

But the decade he refers to follows a huge swing in state fortunes, from the devastation of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and then Gustav and Ike in 2008. For a time, insurance payments and federal rebuilding aid made the state flush. Then, bad decisions on tax cuts and wrangles over the state budget consumed the discussion.

Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, said years were devoted to annual budget crises, about how much to cut health care and higher education, and whether and how to raise taxes to compensate for the widening gap between income and outlays.

“Those were the issues that really dominated the discussion in those days,” Erwin said.

What is the discussion these days? We would argue that the 2019 election year for Louisiana is not the perfect set-up, even though by expedients like a higher sales tax and some haphazard increases in business taxes the urgent budget crises of the lost decade are passed. We’ve not achieved tax reforms that folks like CABL have pushed, for example.

But if the position of state government is more stable financially, it is time to reach for something better in outcomes.

Three groups — CABL, the Public Affairs Research Council, the Committee of 100 for Economic Development — have agreed to combine efforts toward development of a new version of Vision 2020, a key master plan for state government developed in the late 1990s under Gov. Mike Foster.

There will be differences from then and now, as Vision 2020 was more detailed and programmatic in nature, with specific tasks for state departments. With aides like Steve Perry and Andy Kopplin, the Foster administration was seeking a blueprint for state agencies.

This year, though, Erwin said the need is for an agenda that will both educate the public and candidates about what can be done to move Louisiana forward on four key areas: fiscal policy — that which the current administration and Legislature have signally failed on — infrastructure, education policy, and criminal justice and public safety.

All are vital areas where the three sponsoring organizations bring expertise. Further, there is a big turnover of term-limited lawmakers in the Legislature, and a broad agenda may bring some of them to embrace solutions — instead of losing the decade we’re in.