Guest Commentary: Louisiana Needs To Get Its (Trade) Act Together
By Conrad Appel
Former Louisiana State Senator
My favorite political expression is one attributed to Albert Einstein. To paraphrase in my words, “The first sign of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different outcomes.”
As applied to Louisiana’s management (or mismanagement) of one of its most valuable assets, this expression is obviously accurate.
Louisiana is blessed with the gateway for trade from central North America to the world, the Mississippi River. Yet instead of an integrated strategy to manage the development, marketing and vision for what should be a growing prosperity driver for its citizens, Louisiana has chosen to allow these functions to be split between five competing political subdivisions of state government. There are five separate political port district boards, each of differing capabilities and assets, but all with their own local political constituencies.
If insanity needed an example, squandering such international gateway opportunities simply to sustain local politics is it. I challenge any reader to cite a single successful business model that, without central oversight and planning, includes fierce competition for resources and market share between distinct units of the same company.
There is no doubt that Louisiana has lost its mojo by being late to the game with a well-placed and protected modern container terminal. There is no doubt that Louisiana has lost value-added manufacturing, distribution and maritime corporations and banking even as other states sucked them away from us. Despite this, what effort has the state made to reverse this sad state of affairs?
My answer, nothing!
How can Louisiana ever expect to reap the benefits of international trade when its leaders just assume that competing port districts will do what’s best for the whole? In actuality, what we see is each one chasing its own local political expediencies, dreams that have no alignment with a strategic plan and in many cases do not even fulfill fundamental economic metrics. The result for the state and its people: lost business, wasted effort and disastrous reputation damage around the world.
In the last few decades there have been seven major port proposals on the lower river. Four died because of a lack of economic feasibility, two are active but will likely face the same fate, and one is feasible and active. Just think of how much wasted effort and resources have been spent and continue to be spent because the state lacks the ability or willpower to say “No, your project doesn’t fit our strategy. We will not support you.”
A decade ago in the Senate, as a compromised political expediency, I conceived of and passed a bill to create the Louisiana Board of International Commerce (LBIC). This bill has some teeth, not enough but some, to have started us down the road toward a vision of how to manage Louisiana’s International Trade Sector. Unfortunately, the last governor and his secretary of economic development did nothing to take advantage of the opportunities presented by this legislation. As usual, with no leadership, we kept up the insanity of internal infighting. My guess why state leaders ignored LBIC and what it could have stood for…too much parochial politics, too little vision and no political courage.
Which brings us up to today. We have a new governor and will soon have a new secretary of economic development. Will our new governor and secretary seize the day and seek to recapture the trade-based powerhouse that we used to be? Will they recognize the insanity of doing business the same uncoordinated way over and over? Will business and civic leaders, especially in distribution, manufacturing and maritime commerce, finally have had enough of watching Mobile, Houston, Miami, Savannah and so on hand us our proverbial lunch?
Only time will tell.
Conrad Appel served in the Louisiana State Senate from 2008 to 2020. He currently serves as an appointee on the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.