Buddy Roemer last week recalled asking Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev what was the biggest problem facing the Soviet Union.
This was back in the late 1980s when Roemer was governor of a state reeling from economic setbacks in the energy industry and Gorbachev was head of an empire based on an economic theory that was teetering on the brink of collapse.
Gorbachev’s answer? Too many of Russia’s best and brightest were moving away.
The conversation lingered with Roemer over the years.
When he returned to Louisiana last year after running for president, Roemer asked the U.S. Census Bureau to run a report for him, comparing various statistics between Louisiana and 13 Southern states over a 40-year window between 1972 and 2012.
What the report shows came as no surprise: While Louisiana remained stagnant, neighbors had grown geometrically — even New Mexico had doubled in population. Post-Hurricane Katrina, pre-Katrina, the numbers pretty much showed the same thing.
“People are not moving to Louisiana; they’re just not,” Roemer said, pointing out that the state’s representation in Congress has dropped from eight congressmen to six and likely will drop again in 2020.
“I’m not criticizing anyone. I was governor during some of this period,” said Roemer, who is now a 69-year-old Baton Rouge banker who caters to the business community.
Roemer said he made some preliminary calls to officials in the other states to get a feel for what they did over the past 40 years that drove growth that far outpaced Louisiana.
Former Tennessee Gov. “Lamar Alexander, my friend, told me it was tax reform,” Roemer said. Friends in Georgia pointed to the international airport in Atlanta.
The point is that the choices made in other Southern states were sustained over several administrations of varying political persuasions.
North Carolina voters, for instance, came to view the organization and improvement of higher education as untouchable, much in the same way Louisiana voters view homestead exemption or the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, the college scholarship for students of modest academic performance in high school.
Roemer’s goal is to create some similar popular buy-in on a program that, over time, would spur growth in Louisiana. He says he wants LSU to assign some graduate students and academics to go to the other states and study what they did, then come up with a handful of ideas that candidates for governor and other elected offices can cherry pick and debate in the 2015 campaigns.
It could be anything: a regional airport directed toward Latin America, or a Wi-Fi corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans or no incomes taxes for people over the age of 55.
“It doesn’t matter, exactly,” Roemer said, waving his hands. “The point is that they (the candidates) discuss their ideas and we debate the ideas and we discuss the ideas. That’s the only way to have buy in. ... You can’t force ideas onto people.”
Roemer says his plan is in the beginning stages. He’s talked to LSU President King Alexander and to heads of public policy and economic curriculums. He’s started looking for ways to fund it.
Economist James A. Richardson, director of the Public Administration Institute at LSU, says he understands that the collective eyes of Louisiana roll when the idea of another study comes up. But as much as it has been discussed, the state’s chronic “outmigration” really never has been studied academically. He and Roemer have talked about how a study like this would be put together.
True, Richardson makes his living doing scholarly studies, but he pointed out that the analysis of Louisiana’s fiscal policies and suggestions of how it should be structured produced many of the policy ideas — from removing taxes on business equipment to the mineral stabilization fund to the emphasis on income over sales taxes — that state leaders have used over the past two decades.
“It depends on what the results are,” Richardson said. But, “if we hit on a good set of information; if the suggestions are reasonable and doable, ideally, they will provide some attention-getting in the state and create a roadmap to the future.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@the