"The gig is up."
That's how Stephen Waguespack, president and CEO of the Louisiana Alliance of Business and Industry, describes the situation the state finds itself in.
Years of embracing a flawed status quo and avoiding tough decisions has left Louisiana in sharp decline, he said. And the time is rapidly approaching when the government in Baton Rouge will have to make sweeping changes, not matter how painful it is.
"These things are controversial, these things are tough," Waguespack said. "We don't want to talk about it, because it's messy and it's cumbersome. But change is coming. If there's ever a time to embrace it and evolve, the way other states have done, it's now."
No surprisingly, Waguespack spent much of his time during a stop in Alexandria Monday talking about a state budget that has been "living in deficits."
"We've had 15 midyear deficits since 2009," he said. "This is a structural problem that we have to fix."
Waguespack is skeptical of the state raising enough additional revenue to dig itself out of the hole. LABI is more focused on the spending side.
Chief among its recommendations are removing protections from various funds to give legislators flexibility to reduce the size of the budget and reforming the state's Medicaid and retirement systems to control future costs.
Other areas of focus for LABI in the upcoming legislative session are:
►Criminal justice reform. Specifically, targeting ways to stop funneling non-violent offenders into prisons.
"Louisiana is the incarceration leader in the country," Waguespack said. "A lot of these non-violent offenders end up in a bed next to someone who is a much more hardened criminal, and they learn criminal skills they take back to their community. That's where the cycle of incarceration starts. Instead, let's get them into a drug program, let's get them into a training program, let's teach them skills to help them improve their lives and get a job."
Waguespack believes people are open to paying more to address an estimated $13 billion backlog in infrastructure projects, but only if they are presented with a specific plan of how money will be raised and spent.
"What are you asking for? How are you going to spend it? What projects will it fund?" he said. "In the past, people have heard promises of investment, but they didn't see it on the back side."