Economic growth on the West Bank of the Mississippi River in the New Orleans area is vital to Louisiana, and Gov. John Bel Edwards says he is committed to prioritizing it.
Edwards spoke Friday to a banquet hall filled with West Bank business and community leaders and legislators who quizzed him on his dedication to the community’s job growth and infrastructure, as well as his views on the state’s higher education and retirement systems.
For nearly 30 years, the Governor’s West Bank Luncheon has brought local leaders and the sitting governor together to hash out concerns. It is organized by the Algiers Economic Development Foundation, Harvey Canal Industrial Association, Jefferson Chamber of Commerce and Plaquemines Association of Business and Industry.
Edwards assured officials from Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes that he is committed to the completion of the Peters Road bypass, the Belle Chasse tunnel replacement and other key West Bank infrastructure projects, pledging to petition federal officials for every dollar possible.
“The types of projects in this area are, I believe, good, competitive projects,” he said. “If you know nothing else about me, know that I am not bashful about asking for our federal tax dollars to come back to Louisiana.”
As the same time, Edwards again criticized the state’s “dysfunctional” capital outlay budget, which in the past has funded “pet projects that don’t have a statewide or even regional impact,” he said. Instead, he plans to use capital outlay money on roads and deferred maintenance for state buildings.
Asked how he would help revitalize the West Bank, which business leaders said has been devastated by major manufacturers’ departures, especially the closing of Avondale Shipyard, Edwards was blunt.
“The unfortunate reality is that most of the commercial shipbuilding that occurs on a large scale now takes place overseas,” and there is fierce competition for a limited number of domestic shipbuilding projects, he said.
Given those realities, he said, the area might be better served if multiple entities use the former shipyard site for various purposes. He endorsed the Port of New Orleans’ push to examine the feasibility of converting part of the site into a wharf for break-bulk cargo such as steel, automobiles and other commodities.
Asked about consolidating the state’s four-year higher education systems and revamping the retirement systems — two points pushed by the Jefferson Chamber — Edwards pointed to the severe budget cuts that higher education has had to endure in recent years and said talk of merging systems such as LSU and Southern without adequate financial support for those systems was “akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
As for the Chamber’s proposal to move away from a defined-benefits plan — the traditional pension plan that guarantees a lifetime of retirement payments to state employees — to a defined-contributions plan, a 401(k)-style plan that pays out only what has been put in, Edwards said he is open to such ideas, but under certain conditions.
“If it will provide a good benefit for people, so that after a career of dedicated public service ... they have security and dignity in their retirement, then I can embrace it,” he said.
But he said changing the current retirement plan won’t erase the pension system’s massive “unfunded accrued liability” — the difference between what the system should have on hand to pay current and future retirement benefits and what it actually has.
In 2013, the four statewide retirement systems had a debt of $19 billion. The high debt drives high employer pension contributions, though Edwards said the normal cost of the current pension plan is less than the Social Security payments employers would have to make without that plan.
Finally, he called on the lawmakers in the room to act boldly and raise revenue to close a $750 million budget gap for the fiscal year that starts July 1 to help families on the West Bank and elsewhere.
Without that revenue, “you simply can’t get it done,” he said.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.