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State earned its reputation

"We can't allow anyone to cast Louisiana in a negative tone. If we don't believe in our capacity to change, then shame on us."

-- Gov. Kathleen Blanco

Gov. Kathleen Blanco ought to qualify her calls for Louisianians to counter those who characterize the state negatively.

The admonition above is absolute, and it would be a mistake to adhere to it absolutely, as some people undoubtedly will.

Blanco argues that things are better in Louisiana today, and she's right. But Louisiana still has a multitude of problems, famously topping numerous lists of things that are bad and often trailing on lists of things that are good. At times our state deserves to be cast in a negative tone, and we ignore the truth at our peril.

The quote above does not acknowledge that criticism sometimes is fair, deserved and necessary for reform. We cannot change what we do not acknowledge.

As Blanco well knows, one of her predecessors in the Governor's Mansion is serving federal time. He is only the latest in a long line of former Louisiana officials to do so, and probably won't be the last.

The FBI recently established a squad of agents in Baton Rouge to specialize in ferreting out corruption and white-collar crime. U.S. Attorney David Dugas says he started pushing for an anti-corruption squad in 2002. "To the extent there's any public corruption related to state government and state or federal funding, most of it goes through Baton Rouge in some manner," Dugas said earlier this year. U.S. Rep. David Vitter, R-Metairie, says he pushed in Washington for such a unit because agents in Baton Rouge "have more work than they can handle with current resources."

Blanco recently said that references to corruption in Louisiana stem from the state's past and should be aggressively countered. The state has failed to get credit for improved conditions during the two terms of former Gov. Mike Foster, Blanco said.

Despite the best efforts of Foster and Blanco, we are not so naive as to believe corruption has vanished here.

It is true that Foster's eight-year administration was not marked by scandal and corruption, and it made significant progress in education and a number of other areas. However, the Foster years were not entirely without blemish. Foster bought a campaign mailing list from white supremacist David Duke and illegally hid the transaction, an ethics violation for which Foster paid a $20,000 fine. Should no one have cast that incident in a negative tone?

Blanco has been practicing what she preaches. Not long ago, she wrote to the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek magazine, complaining about references in those publications to corruption in Louisiana. She recently urged business leaders and school principals to follow her lead.

"It's important to answer that kind of remark," she told reporters. "If you don't answer, the image remains."

True, perhaps, but Louisiana's reputation is not mere image, and it is not undeserved.

The state did make important progress under Foster's administration. Blanco, to her credit, has championed stronger ethics in government, modest campaign finance changes and increased lobbyist disclosure, and we hope to see further improvements under the Blanco administration.

However, the culture of corruption has a long history in Louisiana. We will not overcome that without much more hard work and a lot of time.

Louisiana will have a better reputation when our actions consistently demonstrate that we deserve it.


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