CNBC recently released its annual ranking of “America’s Top States for Business.” It would have been nice if it had contained a big surprise for Louisiana, because that would have meant we were not in the bottom 10 of states for the 7th year in a row. But sadly, no surprises. It did, however, come with a healthy dose of lessons and even something of a framework for how we can move forward.
This year we’re ranked at #44. It’s not our worst showing. One year we were #46 and another year #47. But it’s not a spot where a state like Louisiana ought to be. Not surprisingly, Mississippi and West Virginia, among southern states, are ranked below us. And southern state’s that have been traditionally strong still are – Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida.
But when you look at our natural resources, our enviable assets, and the industrial investment that has been made in the state, you have to wonder why states like Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky and South Carolina continue to outpace us in the rankings. Quick footnote: It’s not because of the downturn in oil prices and the resulting impact on our economy. We have floundered in the same territory in the rankings no matter what the price of oil and gas.
No, clearly there is something more systemic involved. And while people may agree or disagree with the various methodologies different groups use to come up with these rankings, an index like the one from CNBC can’t simply be ignored.
One reason we continue to hover near the bottom could be the fact that Louisiana doesn’t have much in the way of aspirational goals for the future. Some might call it a lack of vision. But while there does seem to be a strong sense that we’re not satisfied with where we stand now, there doesn’t seem to be much articulation about where it is we want to be. It’s sort of like, we want everything to be better and move up in all the rankings, but we don’t really want to change anything. The CNBC index could offer some guidance about what some of that change might look like.
To understand these kinds of rankings, you have to know what it is that the developers are measuring. In the case of the CNBC index, they track indicators within 10 major categories. The categories include a gamut of things from workforce and infrastructure to education and quality of life.
Within those categories are a series of indicators, and that’s where you look to see the types of things the index deems important.
Some of the issues you find within the quality of life category, for example, are chronic problems we know all too well: crime rates, population health, etc. Those require long-term solutions and, though we must continue to address them, they’re not the things where you can make major progress overnight.
The same is true, to some degree, with education, but there are exceptions. It takes time to boost test scores and improve the overall education level of your population, but technology in the classroom and stable funding for higher education are indicators that can be moved relatively quickly.
Likewise, each of the categories in the index is peppered with indicators that we could move proactively on if we chose to. A number of them are familiar topics like the quality of roads and bridges, creating a more diverse economy, budget stability and improved credit ratings, stabilized support for higher education, a focus on innovation within our institutions, and an improved tax structure. Those are all indicators CNBC tracks and uses to form its rankings.
It might be easy to say there’s probably not much we can do to improve our standing, but there is evidence to the contrary. While Louisiana has remained stagnant throughout the years this index has been tracking states, Tennessee went from a #17 ranking in 2007 to #9 in 2017. If we had made the same progress we would be in the 30s. So states that want to move forward clearly can.
Of course, no index of this type is perfect and one could easily argue that it doesn’t capture some of our undeniable strengths. But it’s hard to argue that the things it does track aren’t important. Looked at a different way, perhaps we should think of it as a road map to a better future for our state. We don’t have to go everywhere it might want to take us, but it’s easy to pick out the important things and focus on them.
But that takes vision, it takes a plan, it takes leadership, and it takes the political will to become better than we are. Unfortunately we’ve now squandered almost a decade of potential progress through budget distractions we refuse to resolve and a lack of vision of what we want our state to be. That’s not a new problem, by any means, but it’s one that’s never too late to try to correct.