Though the business community scored some minor victories in the recent legislative session, re-election-facing lawmakers declined to tackle any of the really meaty issues on the business and good government groups agendas.
As a result, another session has come and gone, and Louisiana has failed to address some of its most fundamental and pressing systemic problems, including the need for fiscal reform and investments in its crumbling, gridlocked highways and bridges.
Will things ever change?
Business leaders and good government groups say things have to change, and they’re trying a new approach to move the needle forward. In an unprecedented show of collaboration and public advocacy, three of the state’s most well-respected policy organizations—the Committee of 100 for Economic Development, Council for a Better Louisiana, and Public Affairs Research Council of Lousiana—are teaming up to push for major, systemic change across Louisiana in four key policy areas: state finances, education, transportation infrastructure, and criminal justice/public safety.
Though all three of the organizations have advocated for reforms in those areas in the past, they believe this new initiative, called RESET, will be different—not only because they’re working collaboratively but because fully one-third of the legislature will turn over in the fall elections.
“This is the largest turnover as the result of term limits that we’ve had in years,” says Mike Olivier, president and CEO of C100, the state’s business roundtable. “So we have the largest number of people out there who can influence and make a change fairly quickly.”
Already, RESET is targeting the many candidates running for open seats and trying to get their support for issues on the RESET agenda, which includes things like fiscal reform, improving the state pension system, expanding access to high-quality early child care and education programs, strengthening K-12 schools and expanding school choice, beefing up workforce training, investing in transportation infrastructure, and improving the efficiency of the criminal justice system.
“We all know these are the good government things that need to be done,” Olivier says. “We’re just asking these candidates to keep them in mind as they approach a bill or a vote, and we will be there to give them cover.”
But while RESET will advocate, educate and use social media—as well as limited amounts of paid, traditional advertising—to spread its good government message, it won’t be throwing big money behind the candidates it’s backing. Granted, C100 members have pitched in $500,000 to jump-start the effort, which includes hiring two consulting firms to help with research and messaging. But beyond the initial outlay, the effort is about promoting policy and appealing to the reason of politicians in one of the most irrational political climates in recent memory. All of which raises the question: How effective will RESET really be?
“I’m not sure any of us really knows,” says Jim Harris, of Harris Deville, a lobbying firm working with the groups. “I just know if we don’t try it will never happen.”
Harris and the others reject the notion that money alone is necessary to influence political candidates and officeholders. That’s not how democracy is supposed to operate and it’s certainly not the way PAR, CABL and C100 have ever done business, according to PAR President and CEO Robert Travis Scott.
The problem, however, is that anti-tax groups like Americans for Prosperity—which has the support of a lot of local small businesses—throw their considerable financial clout behind their candidates and positions, and it can be hard to go up against financial support with just a reasoned argument.
Consider the recent legislative session, when AFP helped kill a proposed gasoline tax bill that was, admittedly, on shaky ground from the outset, yet enjoyed bipartisan support and was widely viewed as a pro-economic development measure.
It was an election year and lawmakers knew they would be targeted by AFP in hit ads later this year if they supported the bill, which never even made it to a committee hearing.
CABL President Barry Irwin concedes it will be difficult to go up against groups like AFP, but he believes the fresh blood in the legislature will make lawmakers more open and willing to go against the super PACS and special interest groups in favor of good government policy.
“All we can do really is try to raise awareness of these issues with the candidates and the public,” Irwin says. “At the end of the day, all that groups like ours can do is raise the urgency and awareness level of candidates who will be in the legislature.”
Throughout the summer, RESET leaders will continue meeting with incumbents, candidates and potential candidates, and hold meetings at chambers of commerce around the state. As the elections get closer, they will hone in on candidates that support their positions and do what they can to help them get elected.
At the end of the day, though, they won’t resort to political gamesmanship but will take the high road—and rely on candidates to do the right thing.
“We will not fund campaigns. We are not demanding anyone sign a pledge,” Olivier says. “This is a nonpartisan approach to simply giving lawmakers and candidates the best policy that is available.”