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Fault, Olivier, lies not in media but in yourself

In the world according to Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Mike Olivier, the reason why Louisiana has a hard time attracting business is not because of the state’s good-old-boy political system that rewards more who you now than what you do. It’s also not because the state is overtaxed, nor is it because its big government regulates business too much.

No; according to Olivier, Louisiana has a hard time getting businesses here because the state has a free press. In remarks made during the fall meeting of the Livingston Economic Development Council, he congratulated the effort to attract a Bass Pro Shops outlet to Denham Springs by using tax increment financing (in other words, public support of a private firm), only days earlier this having been permitted by the Louisiana Supreme Court and, in doing so, offered the following words of wisdom:

“You've been very team oriented,” Olivier said. “I wish we could take you guys as a model to show people in the other parts of the state. You do show a team spirit that is not necessarily shared in other parts of the state.”

Then he got more specific:

Olivier also wishes the New Orleans Time-Picayune would be a team player. Holding up a front page story in the newspaper from two days earlier, the state's highest paid non-coach employee said the article was irresponsible.

The article centered on a junket by Olivier and other state officials to Germany to lure a steel plant to St. James Parish in competition with three other states.

“This article serves to do only one thing: Tell our competitors in Alabama and Arkansas what we are doing,” Olivier said, “It probably has lost the deal for us.”

He argued that journalists in Louisiana have a responsibility to help the state, particularly after the devastation from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“This kind of help we don't need,” Olivier said. “Are they trying to tell people the news or are they trying to queer the deal. It's debilitating is what it is.”

Even stranger than Olivier’s disdain for publicity of his activities was the fact that, in the article he questioned, his remarks appear in it, as well as in several articles prior to that one about the same deal – a deal heavily publicized by his boss, Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who asserted she’s like to devote part of a legislative special session to the deal … a deal the company announced its intentions about in August. In other words, not only did the whole world know about this, but his employer was the one shouting from the rooftops about it. What secrecy was so vital here to make the deal?

Unless, of course, his complaint was a smokescreen to hide his real sense of injury over the publicity – the exposure of his participation in a “junket” to Germany. (Oh, and he’s going on another one, to Asia, this week with Blanco). All of which sums up the Olivier philosophy of economic development (apparently carried over from his days as chief of economic development in Harrison County, MS) – live high off the hog at taxpayers’ expense and justify doing so by occasionally landing a decent-sized commitment of new jobs.

Olivier likes to argue his efforts have brought about around 80 projects worth over $5 billion that have produced 17,000 new jobs. What we don’t hear him talking about is how, just in Monroe during his watch, thousands of jobs have been lost. (Ironically, during his speech Olivier said Monroe should follow Denham Spring’s lead, which I guess means get public dollars to finance private ventures – is this guy for real?) And, even if statistics concerning the state’s job picture have been skewed by the hurricane disasters of 2005, chances are without them, the state still would have been a next exporter of jobs with Olivier at the helm.

This is because Olivier’s inadequate strategy is reminiscent of a fisherman who drops his net and then pulls in his catch. Only this guy goes picking through the haul looking for the biggest fishes to show off as trophies, in the meantime letting a bunch of little ones flop their way back into the water. So it goes with Olivier – he’d rather pursue and talk up the big ones than get down in the trenches and try to keep as many of the little ones around as possible.

Because if Olivier really were serious about economic development in this state, he’d be spending a good deal of his time jawboning his boss and every legislator about how taxes have to be cut to make it easier for business to survive, about how regulation must be slashed to do the same, about how ethics laws for politicians have to be tightened to give business greater confidence in the state’s business climate, and other things which all add up to move Louisiana away from its current business-unfriendly status. It might not be glamorous and it might not make it popular. But it might convince enough lawmakers to make these changes that are the only long-term, effective economic development strategy.

But I suppose that gets in the way of jetting about and dining on lobster. And no doubt if he ever discovers this posting, he’ll consider this just another mutinous distraction making his job harder, in living the high life while ignoring the policy pathologies that are the real causes of his failures.

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