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Analysis: Campaigns spin economic data in governor’s race

By MELINDA DESLATTESeptember 2, 2019

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — By Gov. John Bel Edwards’ telling, Louisiana’s economy is on the mend, growing and creating new jobs after exiting a recession. By his Republican opponents’ accounts, the state economy is in a slump, spiraling into a deep decline.

As often happens with campaign talking points, the reality rests somewhere in the murky middle between the competing rosy interpretation and starkly pessimistic view.

Edwards faces two main GOP challengers on the Oct. 12 ballot: U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, a doctor from rural northeast Louisiana, and Eddie Rispone, a wealthy Baton Rouge businessman making his first bid for elected office.

The two sides in the governor’s race are cherry-picking economic facts to either credit the Democratic incumbent’s term with jump-starting a sluggish state economy or trash Edwards’ performance as dragging the state into the economic doldrums.

A deep dive into years of employment data, done by state legislative economist Greg Albrecht, instead shows a Louisiana economy still being hammered by the steep drop in oil and gas prices that started during former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure.

Louisiana has started modest, though inconsistent, upticks in job growth after the state shed jobs during 2015 and 2016, Albrecht’s analysis shows. Still, the data shows Louisiana significantly lags the South and the nation in job creation, and the state remains below its peak 2014 level of employment.

“As reflected in those employment numbers, it’s been flat. There’s been improvement, but it’s pretty modest,” Albrecht said.

The economist said Louisiana’s private sector employment was 9.8% higher in June 2019 than it was in February 2010, the state’s low point from the national recession. By comparison, the private sector employment growth over the same period was 22.5% for the South and 20.1% for the nation.

“Over the course of the national expansion to date, total payroll employment growth in Louisiana has been approximately 67% less than that of the national economy and 70% less than the South,” Albrecht wrote in his analysis.

That doesn’t suggest Louisiana is rocking and rolling on the economic front, but it also doesn’t mean Louisiana has fallen into the economic abyss.

The numbers used by Democrats and Republicans to make their points often capture short snapshots in time or don’t provide the full context of a report.

For example, Edwards recently touted Louisiana’s 4.3% unemployment rate as the lowest the state has seen in 11 years and lower than the 6.1% rate when he took office. “Louisiana truly is headed on the right track,” he said in a statement.

The flip side, which Republicans point out, is that Louisiana continues to have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, above the national average of 3.7% and below the rate of only six other states.

The Republican Governors Association is running a TV ad slamming Edwards on the economy, describing Louisiana as “the only state in America that lost jobs in the last year.” That spot uses federal seasonally-adjusted employment data that shows Louisiana has 1,000 fewer jobs in July 2019 compared to July 2018.

Democrats pick a different set of months for comparison to suggest the job numbers look better.

None of the data looks great amid the threat of another national recession, particularly with outmigration trends suggesting Louisiana’s population continues to stagnate compared with many of its neighbors.

But how much a governor can influence those factors in a short time is questionable.

“In effect, the state is externally driven,” Albrecht said. “I don’t think state governments can really do much to push their economies faster in any short and intermediate term and certainly not with spending and tax policy.”

The federal government can change interest rates, rework trade policy, and deficit spend to try to give the economy a boost. States can’t do such things.

Governors and lawmakers can, however, work to improve education, upgrade infrastructure, rewrite tax laws and adjust legal systems to lay the groundwork for future economic growth. Albrecht said such changes won’t show up in the snapshot of one term in office and it would take years to determine if they alter a state’s economic trajectory.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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