In contrast to the slow pace of the national economic recovery, Louisiana has a record of economic growth and job creation the last six years that we can be proud of. By adapting public policies to expand economic opportunity and foster private sector growth, Louisiana’s unemployment rate is the lowest in the South; the state’s workforce is at its highest level in history; and an economic renaissance rises with the culture of a state where people want to live and raise their families. The 2014 Legislative Session will stand in the history books as one where key initiatives were enacted that set the stage to accelerate the economic growth already at work in Louisiana.
This session, we wanted to build on our momentum and pass laws that continue our efforts to make Louisiana the best state to raise a family and find a good paying job. That’s why when we began this legislative session, we said our priority was to build Louisiana’s workforce to better compete in the global economy. Economists have warned that Louisiana has so many jobs coming to our state that we will not have enough workers to fill them. It is a good problem to have, but one that needed to be addressed. In order to do this, we passed a budget that will increase funding for higher education by $140 million and legislation that will help us better prepare our students for great careers in rapidly expanding Louisiana industries like manufacturing and technology.
Higher education is changing across the nation. Parents, employers, and students are demanding that investment in a college education provides a path toward a good job. In Louisiana, the future of higher education is critically linked to the partnership between universities and employers to provide new opportunities for real world experience and research in expanding job markets across the state’s economy. The new Workforce Innovation for a Stronger Economy (WISE) Fund we proposed and that was passed by the Legislature provides an investment of $40 million that is now available to all colleges and universities in Louisiana. The WISE Fund is designed to work with businesses and corporations to establish research and instructional programs that prepare students for jobs when they graduate.
I am also signing legislation that will strengthen our Jumpstart program, which empowers businesses, higher education and high schools to create career pathways that result in specialized diplomas in fields that meet the workforce needs of the geographic areas where they are located. The bill ensures students who pursue a Career Diploma count the same in the accountability system as any other graduate in the state, helping to ensure they have access to a great education.
We also increased K-12 education funding for our children through the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP), which funds our schools around the state. This year, the MFP was increased by $120 million, its largest annual increase since 2009, and it is now at its highest level ever. We also fully funded TOPS with an investment of over $80 million so that thousands of Louisiana students can continue to receive assistance for their college education.
We also increased funding for health care services, including a $24.5 million increase for intensive therapy for children and certain adults with autism, as well as a $26 million increase that will expand home and community-based services for the elderly and individuals with disabilities.
This session we also accomplished our efforts to eliminate frivolous lawsuits that are delaying clean up of Louisiana lands and burdening our legal system with unnecessary claims. We passed legislation that will continue to preserve and protect our environment without exposing our citizens to unnecessary lawsuits that ultimately deprive our state of energy production and more jobs. By insisting on a fair legal system, we can continue to grow the state’s economy without the fear that legal fees could easily dry up investment in some of the state’s key industries.
Our successes were not held to just an increase in funding for education and health care, and frivolous lawsuit reform. We are proud that other of our top priorities, including merit pay increases for state employees and cost of living adjustments for retirees were funded.
We also strengthened laws to help end human trafficking in our state. We passed legislation that will ensure human trafficking criminals are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and that victims of this terrible industry are identified and protected.
These wins will help us grow our economy, protect the most vulnerable among us and ensure we keep investing in our students and higher education institutions. But we won’t stop here — we won’t stop working. We’ll continue working to find more ways to grow our economy, bring more jobs to our state and move Louisiana forward for our people.
Bobby Jindal is Governor of Louisiana