On the same day that U.S. News and World Report issued its annual list of the Best States, ranking Louisiana dead last for the third year in a row based on its health care, education, infrastructure, crime and other quality-of-life measures, a state legislative committee was debating whether to set the legal age of marriage at 18.
The timing couldn’t have been more ironic. Louisiana is one of just a handful of states that still has no minimum age for marriage, and one might suppose that raising the legal age to wed in a state racked by rampant poverty rates and poor educational outcomes would be something of a no-brainer in tackling systemic social ills.
But then, this is Louisiana, a state where lawmakers have also spent valuable time this session debating whether Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” should be named an official state song, and questioning whether vaccines cause autism.
Yet while such heady debates raged, a gas tax bill that was widely supported by business and economic development groups—including, significantly, the anti-tax Louisiana Association of Business and Industry—didn’t even make it to a committee hearing because lawmakers are so afraid of voting for a tax in an election year.
While there isn’t a causal relationship between vaccines and autism, there is direct link between investments in transportation infrastructure and moving up on rankings based on quality-of-life metrics. It’s not because good roads make life easier (though they do that, too). It’s because good highways and bridges attract businesses that come in and create jobs for needy citizens, thereby cultivating a healthier tax base that can then support better schools, health care and so on.
It’s an upward spiral that seems anathema to the quirky laws of physics that kick in once you cross the border into the Bayou State. Our lawmakers are more inclined to keep us down, and ultimately, we deserve it. For whatever else this is, it is still a representative democracy and they are a reflection of us.
Why is it so impossible for Louisiana to move forward? Why is it so difficult for so many to see that investing in our future is what will get us off the bottom?
I’ve been pondering that question not only because of the recent U.S. News rankings but also because of a study architect Skipper Post shared with me in the course of my reporting for the current cover story on Florida Boulevard.
The study dates back to 1986, and was prepared by a Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team of the American Institute of Architects, which came down here for several days to address issues that might sound familiar to residents of East Baton Rouge Parish today—sprawl, traffic, flooding and the increasing polarization between the economically underserved north of the parish and the prosperous south.
While there has been some progress in the 33 years since the study came out—particularly with the redevelopment of downtown and the emphasis on better land-use planning and zoning code revisions—many of the problems identified in R/UDAT persist to this day. Among them:
• Citizens complain about flooding because development is allowed in the flood plain.
• Many local arterial roads have no consistent roadway width or engineering standards.
• A poor public transit system.
• Some are concerned about the quality of education.
• There is a perception the city is divided.
• There are obvious capacity and continuity problems of roads and highways.
• Limited funds are available for road improvements.
• The local electorate refuses to pass bond issues because they distrust local government.
This was written in 1986, mind you, a veritable lifetime ago. Those of us old to enough to remember it were listening to music on clunky yellow Walkman’s, marveling over a new invention called fax machines, and learning about President Ronald Regan’s Iran Contra travails from Dan Rather on network TV.
Yet, parts of R/UDAT read as though they were written last week.
How is it that in the 33 years since the world has developed the Internet, smart phones and virtual reality, here in Baton Rouge we’ve been unable to figure out how to build a loop around the city (a fix called for in the study, not incidentally), how to stop new construction in flood plains, and how to develop a decent bus system?
And when we do come together as a community to address our collective problems, as the Capital Region delegation and the business community did in a rare moment this year to put forth the gas tax solution, why do we allow lawmakers afraid of Americans for Prosperity to thwart it?
Is there any hope?
A businessman friend, who returned here five years ago after more than two decades building successful companies in other states, says it would honestly be easier to pick up and leave again than to try to get something going here—and he’s tried. We’re too rooted in the past, too unwilling to change, too unable to get a grip on our problems—be they the flooding, transit and infrastructure challenges outlined in R/UDAT or the poverty, education and health outcome issues cited by U.S. News.
It’s tiresome to forever be last and even more disturbing to realize how long we’ve been failing to address the same old problems. We have to do better.