Business leader says La. must make transportation, education priorities

Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President Stephen Waguespack speaks today to the Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce at the Courtyard Marriott in Houma.
Chris Heller/Staff

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By Aaren Gordon
Staff Writer

Employers around Louisiana want lawmakers to make transportation a budget priority, the head of the state’s largest business group said today in Houma.

“It does no good to move your company to Louisiana and produce all these great goods and products if you can’t put them on a ship, on a boat, on a truck, on a plane and get them out of here to the world’s customers,” Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President Stephen Waguespack said.

“We’ve got a capacity backlog that’s not only going to make it annoying but also make it an inhibitor for investment to grow our economy,” he said.

Waguespack spoke to members of the Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce during a luncheon at the Courtyard by Marriott.

Louisiana has a backlog of road and bridge maintenance and construction estimated at more than $12 billion. State lawmakers are considering ways to address it during the legislative session that begins April 13 and ends June 11.

Waguespack said his group wants to ensure money from the Transportation Trust Fund, tax revenue used for roads in state budget, is used on infrastructure only.

Another priority among businesses is making sure workers are prepared for jobs that will continue to grow more complex. Employers have told him they need people who can read, write, stay off drugs and have good “soft skills” such as working well with others and communicating well.

“For years, we’ve known our test results haven’t been there. In the past, we’ve overlooked it because we have a safety net. With all these industrial and chemical and manufacturing jobs we’ve always had here, ‘Go work where your daddy works. You’ll be fine,’” he said. “Those jobs are still there, but they require more specificity.”

He said industry needs to continue to partner with higher education to create more meaningful workforce training like institutions in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes do.

Waguespack said higher education needs autonomy and less control by the state Legislature.

“We hire these innovators to lead higher ed, and the first thing we do is tell them all the things they can’t do. You can’t run a system like that. You can’t compete with the other universities they’re trying to beat like that,” he said.

The Legislature, facing a $1.6 billion shortfall that is expected impact higher education, has to make some difficult choices, Waguespack said.

“We have chosen to invest in a very heavy infrastructure for higher ed. We have two choices: We can reduce our footprint, which is painful and tough, or we can change how we utilize that footprint,” he said.

Either will require cutting programs that don’t produce results in helping graduates get jobs in the area they graduate from.

“Every university cannot be all things to all people in a state this size with a revenue this size,” he said. “We can’t afford it,” he said.

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