Katherine Kersten: A hurricane of conservative ideas is helping to rebuild Louisiana

Is Hurricane Gustav, which was lashing Louisiana on Monday, a threat to the Republican Party and its vision of limited government? According to conventional wisdom, disasters like Katrina and Gustav demand the big-government solutions that Democrats favor.

But don't try that line on the Louisiana delegates assembled in St. Paul this week. They'll tell you that conservative ideas are not only rebuilding Louisiana, but ensuring that the state is in far better condition than before Katrina hit.

The people of Louisiana are fed up with the institutions that failed them so miserably during the Katrina disaster, says Scott Wilfong, a delegate from Baton Rouge.

"For so long, our state has been near the bottom of the list in everything good -- like educational excellence and business opportunity -- and at the top in everything bad, like corruption and poverty," he explains. "People are tired of the old model, of being the nation's laughingstock."

Today, Louisiana's dynamic new governor, Bobby Jindal, a 37-year-old Republican, is meeting the state's many challenges head-on. Jindal took office in January with a powerful mandate for reform.

One of his first acts was to call a special legislative session to tackle Louisiana's deep-rooted culture of government corruption. Under Jindal's leadership, the Legislature passed a groundbreaking ethics law, which the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity has described as the strongest in the country.

"There's an old saying in Louisiana -- 'You can get any legislator to vote for anything if you buy him a big enough steak,'" says Wilfong, who ticks off a long list of former officials now in federal prison. "But after this law, you can't get a seat on, say, the levee board by making a political contribution."

Jindal also moved quickly to put the state's fiscal house in order. He balanced the budget -- making liberal use of his veto pen -- and imposed a state hiring freeze.

Jindal presided over a personal income tax cut that he has described as the largest in Louisiana's history. He also enhanced the state's economic competitiveness by cutting business taxes and bureaucratic paperwork.

"In the past, Mama might be thinking of opening a sewing factory, but when she finds out what she's got to do, she says, 'Ridiculous,'" explains former Gov. Buddy Roemer, a member of the Louisiana delegation. Thanks to Jindal's reforms, those days are gone, Roemer says.

Partly in response to these new policies, Forbes magazine recently increased Louisiana's growth-prospects rank from 45th in the nation to 17th, and the state's unemployment rate is going down.

Reform has been particularly dramatic in education, a trend already underway when Jindal came to office. In 2005, Louisiana's public schools were between 43rd and 46th in federal government rankings. Today, New Orleans children benefit from school choice, charters and vouchers. Louisiana boasts "an educational landscape unlike any other, a radical experiment in reform," wrote the New York Times.

These advances, and others like them, are the product of a shift in mindset from dependence to personal responsibility, says Roemer. He links it directly to Katrina:

"This is a sea change for folks with the old Mardi Gras mentality -- 'Hey, mister, give me some money.' Today, it's no longer fashionable to have your hand out. It's fashionable to roll up your sleeves and work."

Katherine Kersten • kkersten@startribune.com Join the conversation at my blog, www.startribune.com/thinkagain.

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