The story of Buddy Roemer is the story of many who fight for reform. One of passionately embracing policies to make the state better, but running head first into the obstacles of the political status quo. Though he served just one tumultuous term as governor, he made a real difference for Louisiana.
History should remember former Governor Buddy Roemer as a leader who was, in many ways, ahead of his time. He had the intellect and clear vision to see where Louisiana needed to go and the ability to articulate it in plain talk that any citizen could understand.
When he talked about the “Roemer Revolution” you knew he was going to try to turn things upside down. In many ways, that’s just what he did.
The four years he served as governor from 1988-1991, were challenging ones for the state. He inherited a deficit that in today’s dollars would have been in the billions. That wasn’t like the shortfalls we deal with today. This was a real deficit where the state had already spent money it didn’t have. He had to find a creative way to eliminate that deficit, keep the state open for business, and pay public employees when the cupboard was literally bare. And he did, “scrubbing the budget,” as he would famously say, and thinking so far outside the box that he remedied the problem sooner than anyone could have imagined.
He was also a fiscal reformer, passing a plan through the Legislature that would have solidified state finances and provided more stability and predictability to a state budget that had been through countless ups and downs thanks to the state’s heavy reliance on oil and gas revenues. Wary voters rejected the plan at the polls, but a number of his policy ideas were later enacted into law.
Abortion, environmental policy, and fighting corruption were contentious issues that dominated much of his time in office, but they didn’t keep him from focusing on one of his greatest passions – education. Despite the huge budget challenges, he went beyond the lip service of other politicians and gave teachers a much-needed pay raise – an almost impossible task at the time.
While doing that he also passed the state’s first meaningful teacher evaluation policy. Though that major initiative was later abandoned after he left office, it was a precursor to the movement for school accountability which states across the country and the federal government eventually came to embrace.
Buddy Roemer grew up in a political family. Before serving as governor, he was a delegate to the 1973 Constitutional Convention and a member of Congress. But in no way was he a “typical” politician. He was incredibly intelligent, a voracious reader, and he could give a speech like no one else at the state Capitol. But beyond that, he had a vision for Louisiana.
Whether you agreed with him or not, it was hard to deny that his passion was real, his intentions were noble, and the courage he displayed was authentic. He wanted Louisiana to be the forward-looking southern state he knew it could be. The politics of the time did much to stifle his efforts. But he made Louisiana a better place and showed a type of leadership that, sadly, in this era seems all too rare.