Waguespeck, Hecht say Louisiana must innovate to stay competitive
When Stephen Waguespack and Michael Hecht share the stage at the Jefferson Chamber’s annual legislative breakfast, it always feels like a combination of improv comedy and therapy session. It probably helps to maintain a sense of humor when you’re pitching a state that often ends up at the bottom of the good lists and at the top of the bad ones.
At the 2023 event (which took place on March 7 at the Airport Hilton), the two economic development executives discussed how Louisiana can catch up with other southern states experiencing a boom in economic and population growth.
Waguespack leads the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. Hecht helms Greater New Orleans Inc.
According to the duo, virtually all of Louisiana’s southern neighbors are poaching people and businesses from other parts of the country, but Louisiana is missing out on the trend.
Waguespack’s team commissioned a study to find out why, and to help craft an economic development plan to help change that.
“We want to see if Louisiana can be the economic driver of the south by 2030,” he told the chamber crowd. “But I’ll be honest with you. If you’re looking for optimistic, fluffy reading, don’t read this stuff, because it’s sobering.”
Waguespack said the state’s challenge is to match the improvements to tax code, education, public safety and quality of life that have taken place in Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina and elsewhere.
He’s been traveling the state to connect with local leaders (and possibly preview a run for governor), and he said the good news is that Louisiana’s local leaders aren’t asking for a whole lot.
“The needs of the businesses in this state are very elementary,” he said. “We just need people that can work — and we need safety.”
Hecht said the state is in the midst of a schizophrenic moment.
“It’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times because if you look at the state level or at the local level, I would argue that there is more opportunity today than there was even post Katrina,” he said. “But the challenge is that crime and the insurance crisis are actually worse.”
Hecht said it’s not just as simple as lowering income taxes and luring more businesses to the state.
“We’re still obsessed about income tax, but the reality is that income tax is binary,” he said. “Only zero is zero. But getting to zero is going to be very difficult for us since it would involve significant property tax increases at a local level.”
Hecht said that low taxes don’t even necessarily correlate with economic growth. Texas has no individual income tax and high growth, for example. But South Carolina has higher taxes overall and high growth. Louisiana, unfortunately, has relatively low taxes and low growth.
“So what that really is about is a bigger issue than just taxes, this issue of opportunity. And so I’m hoping that we can begin to engage what’s fundamentally affecting opportunity for the state,” he said.
On the flip side, Hecht said new energy projects in Louisiana are something to get excited about. This includes Venture Global’s multi-billion-dollar LNG plant in development in Plaquemines Parish.
“It’s currently the biggest finance project in the world this year and will eventually be the largest project financed in world history — over $22 billion,” he said. “And it not only is creating thousands of jobs, it’s keeping the world free from Putin and Russian oil.”
Hecht also bragged that Louisiana is becoming the manufacturing hub for offshore wind for the entire country. “We’re selling shovels to the gold miners,” he said, and it means more jobs for maritime companies like Harvey Gulf, Gulf Island Fabrication and Edison Chouest Offshore.
He’s also bullish about hydrogen projects under development in the state.
“We can produce green hydrogen using solar and wind and Louisiana and maintain all of our jobs in the industrial corridor and in Jefferson, but reduce emissions by 70%,” he said. “So it’s this weird schizophrenic moment that we’re in. To borrow a line from the old R&B song, we’ve just got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.”
Also during the conversation, Waguespack praised Hecht for helping form the NOLA Coalition, an alliance of more than 500 organizations working to reduce crime and increase opportunity in New Orleans. And he said one way to address to the state’s insurance crisis, which includes rising costs of flood and homeowner’s insurance, is to fortify building standards to show insurers that the area “can take a punch.”
As far as the flood insurance crisis specifically, Hecht said that unfortunately it’s going to take another flood event somewhere else in the country to help galvanize support for changes to the program. In the meantime, some national politicians will continue to dismiss south Louisianans as “crazy Cajuns” living too close to the water and in the path of hurricanes.
Did You Know? The Jefferson Chamber is five-star accredited by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and was awarded the 2013, 2015, and 2019 “Chamber of the Year” award by the Louisiana Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives in the large chamber category.