By Cyril Vetter
I was born and raised in Donaldsonville, Louisiana. When I grew up in the 1950s, it was cool to be stupid. Smart kids, kids who studied, were “fruits” — but if you acted stupid (whether you actually were or not), smoked cigarettes and didn’t try in school, you were cool. If you aspired to more than slamming Falstaff and Sloe Gin at the Town and Country Club on Friday and Saturday nights (after eating delicious rabbit spaghetti you could buy for a quarter at the Knights of Columbus hall), you had no place in the “in crowd.”
In many ways, the Donaldsonville of the 1950s has been writ large by our state and its governor.
On a drive West last summer, I overnighted in Las Cruces, New Mexico. On University Avenue, banners proudly trumpeted New Mexico State University as a U.S. News Tier One University. Tier One — in a place that is so barren, so hot, with no water, no oil, no fisheries, no agriculture . . . no anything. Except a Tier One public university.
We should be ashamed and embarrassed. I am. The tired trope that Louisiana is a “poor state” is a red herring and a copout for incompetence, greed and corruption. We’ve been gifted the richest patrimony of any state in this country. Maybe of anyplace in the world. Yes, it gets hot and humid in July, August and September, but that’s offset by Creole tomatoes.
How did we screw this up so badly? It’s like inheriting a fortune and frittering it away buying racehorses or playing video poker. We pay dearly, and continuously, for our dissipation.
We have one of the highest HIV rates in America — New Orleans and Baton Rouge rank second and third among U.S. cities, respectively — and an administration that refuses to accept the bounty of the Affordable Care Act to address the need for medical care for working class citizens. So they go to emergency rooms, increasing the cost of health care for us all and ultimately forcing closure of some ERs — or they go without medical care and call in sick, which costs their employers.
Our state likewise ranks high on other “bad” lists — for rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer, infant mortality, teen pregnancy, illiteracy, high school dropouts, low birth weight babies and more. We also have the highest incarceration rate in the civilized world and marijuana laws that imprison a disproportionate number of young black males for doing the north Louisiana equivalent of drinking beer.
In the face of all this, we have a governor who, although he is a graduate of an Ivy League university, continues to demonstrate his solidarity with 1950s Donaldsonville by championing policies that are not future focused and seem oblivious to the competitive realities of today’s globally connected economy.
These policies have been perpetuated for centuries by dreadful governors who, with a few exceptions, would be challenged to manage a small business, much less an enterprise the size of the State of Louisiana.
Our current governor is so in thrall to the Grover Norquist concept of the common good, which demands reducing the size of government until it can be drowned in a bathtub, that he wouldn’t even tolerate renewing a modest sales tax on cigarettes in 2011.
Signing a “no tax under any conditions” pledge is a total abdication of the responsibility that we, the citizens of Louisiana, elected him to carry out. Instead, it cedes that responsibility to a Washington, D.C., zealot who is funded by billionaires and corporations who don’t give a flip about the people of Louisiana. Jeb Bush won’t sign it.
For all his “Ivy League policy wonk” cred, Bobby Jindal reeks of 1950s Donaldsonville.
But wait, there’s more.
Our infrastructure is crumbling, public funding for higher education has been gutted, we have the environmental sensibility of Chad, and K-12 public education in many school districts is in shambles.
At the same time, we subsidize refinery and industrial plant projects that would be “NIMBY” anyplace else in the country. Valero wants to build a refinery in Santa Barbara? I don’t think so. Many of the subsidized projects should be paying us to locate here. They need our natural gas and our access to the Mississippi River.
I often ask myself, “Why do I still live here?” I live here because I love it. I am of this place. And I want to do what little I can to change it.
I wish there were more of my fellow citizens who understand that diversity, education, and future-focused thinking represent the way out of the poverty and ignorance that dog our population, but I’m resigned to the truth that it will take more generations than mine to escape that legacy. That legacy, by the way, prevents us from being more than just a natural-resource-rich state exploited by people smarter than we. Sadly, it wouldn’t take much to make smarter choices than our current governor.
If New Mexico were blessed with the climate, the agriculture, the timber, the fisheries, the oil and gas, the water, the culture, the food, the music, the tourism, the transportation resources and all the other blessings we have, that state would be richer than Saudi Arabia. It wouldn’t be mired in the psychic Petri dish of backward thinking that we lovingly call home.
But it’s not fair to just kvetch and not offer a solution. Being Louisiana, there is an easy fix.
Right now with the collapse of crude prices and the accompanying dramatic reduction in pump prices, the Legislature could (and should) muster the moral and political courage to pass a veto-proof temporary increase in the gasoline tax. Or restore the Stelly Plan, or tax cigarettes or some combination of those options — at least until we can elect someone who cares about us and has the vision to develop a sustainable budget in place of the serial ad hockery legerdemain of this administration.
Gov. Mike Foster fully funded LSU when oil was $11 a barrel; you’d think this governor could do it at $50 a barrel — and not put our bond credit rating in danger of being downgraded.
We have the ninth-lowest gas pump price in the nation and we are tied with Texas for the ninth-lowest per gallon gasoline tax in the nation. A temporary gasoline tax increase could at least keep higher education, especially our flagship university (a main driver of economic development), from being gutted by a lame duck “presidential aspirant” who cares more about the people of Iowa than he does about us.
Cyril Vetter is an attorney/businessman and a lifelong resident of Louisiana. He has written and produced books, music, film and television projects with a Louisiana cultural preservation theme. He is currently executive producing “After The Spill,” a documentary by award winning filmmaker Jon Bowermaster on the health of the Gulf five years after the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster.