APPEL: The Struggle To Exorcise Huey Long From Louisiana’s Governance

Mark Ballard penned an editorial in Sunday morning’s Advocate that sought to decouple the connection that conservatives have made to Louisiana’s bad performance with policies dating to the time of Huey Long. I appreciate, though disagree a bit with a couple of his points. A taste from Ballard’s piece…

While Louisiana legislators milled around the State Capitol last week doing nothing more than accusing members of the other party of sidetracking the latest stab at fixing the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis, U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise put the blame squarely on Huey Long.

“We’re still operating a lot of the vestiges of Huey Long. You look at the other Southern states around us, and they have changed to meet the new environment and have thrived because of it,” Scalise told The Advocate of his view of the situation in Baton Rouge.

Pointing the finger at someone who took office 90 years ago seems a little audacious. But get used to it. “It’s Huey’s fault” looks like a catch phrase going into the 2019 elections.

State Sen. Conrad Appel, the Metairie Republican who has taken a side job as conservative philosopher on right-wing blog sites, wrote on Feb. 19, the first day of the special session focused on fixing a nearly $1 billion deficit: “I agree that without doubt our predicament is caused by poverty, but it is a poverty of the spirit resultant from a political establishment at all levels that has mastered the art of operating under a philosophy of government that dates to Huey Long.”

Mr. Ballard cites one of the great handicaps from the Long era that is placed upon progress in our state; the relationship between state and local governments. Our legacy is that the state controls local government and its finances to an extent far in excess of virtually all states. Politicians in Baton Rouge love this arrangement because it greatly enhances their authority and power. The downside is that the state suffers because this legacy obstructs the fundamental principles of what a good state government should adhere to; big picture thinking, prioritization of effort and spending, and the establishment of goals for the whole state.

A classic example of inverted logic is Louisiana’s MFP (Minimum Foundation Program) for funding K-12 education. Unlike most states whose school funding is derived from local sources, in Louisiana a great deal, actually a majority, of funding for local education comes from state and Federal sources. The problem with this is that it creates divided control and insulates local school boards from the voters. If local school board members don’t have to justify raising the majority of their funding from their local people, those who utilize the schools, they don’t have to demonstrate success in education.

There are complicated policies that must be unwound in order make our state a success. Most of them find their roots in the Huey Long time and the decades that followed during which politicians learned to enjoy and expand upon his philosophy. We know the outcome of this thinking – failure at all levels and a constant demand for more taxes.

Let me quote two expressions that best define how our Long era philosophy of government, a philosophy that we still follow, is so detrimental to our state’s success in the 21st century. The first was attributed to Huey or followers and the second to his nephew decades later. The expression from Huey’s time is “a chicken in every pot”. That of his nephew is don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax the man behind the tree”. Taken together a perfect description of the philosophy that our leaders urgently want to cling to. Hence the frenetic effort by our current governor to increase taxes at all costs.

To many adherents of that Long philosophy the current legislative fight would seem to be about taxes. But it is not! It is fundamentally a struggle between the old guard and the modern conservatives to break Louisiana free from a philosophy that may have been appropriate for the 1930s but certainly does not work in the 21st century.

So if to Mr. Ballard I sound like a conservative philosopher I take that with great pride. It is far past time for a different view of the world to emerge from our tangle of history. A progressive view that has been adopted by so many other states, states that are not last on every list of success!

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