Thursday, February 4, 2010
THE SAINTS vs. STEVE JOBS AND THE iPAD
Two different parts of the country and two different issues dominate the news. For obvious and understandable reasons, the “Who Dat” nation has captivated Louisiana. Other news stories fade to the inside pages as the success of the New Orleans Saints dominate front pages of newspapers across the state. But some 2000 miles away in Portland, Oregon, the Saints command barely a mention. It’s Steve Jobs and his new Apple iPad Tablet that is sparking much more interest. So is there a way to blend the excitement stirred in both states to ameliorate what’s happening in Louisiana?
My destination was actually Hood River, Oregon, a resort community an hour south of Portland, to visit a new granddaughter. Oregon is similar in size to Louisiana, and the legislature has just begun their biannual session. They seem to get a lot done by meeting only every other year, like Texas. There is plenty to admire in Oregon public policy, and it’s worth taking a look at how this northwestern part of the country has dealt with a number of complex public issues.
There is a lot of talk in Portland about the “Apple approach” that could be adapted to running state government. The attitude seems to be that politics is permanently entrenched in the toxicity of divisive partisanship, but bright ideas always trump cynicism. The new sleek iPad tablet is loaded with impressive, sophisticated technology that Apple’s engineers have worked on for years. It’s the kind of “thinking ahead” philosophy and culture that Steve Jobs and Apple nurture and are known for. The Oregon approach seems to be what an interesting challenge it would be if they could corral an equivalent level of ingenuity and talent available to Steve Jobs to solve some of the complex issues facing their state.
There is a prevailing feeling in Oregon that the country is entering the fourth decade in Washington where Congress and the whole federal bureaucracy has stagnated and failed to address any national problem. Schools, healthcare, a crumbling infrastructure, all will need state solutions. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has been saying much of the same thing during the past year, but has been short on specifics. Whether you agree with Oregon’s approach or not, you have to give the stare credit for doing more than just “talking the talk.”
Remember the large state surplus in Louisiana just a few years ago? In Oregon, they have what they call the “Kicker,” which constitutionally requires the legislature to give refunds back to tax payers when any surplus is accumulated. The more than one billion dollar surplus the Louisiana Legislature found ways to spend back in 2008 would have been returned to taxpayers if such a provision had been in place in the Bayou State.
Portland has three light rail train lines with a forth under construction. At the airport, you can board a train that zips you right into the central business district for $2.05. In many cases, the train runs right up the middle o f the street-stations are literally on the curb. Portland officials also drew a square around downtown and declared it a “fare less zone.” If you ride the train or the bus only within that zone, it’s free. Such a system would be a natural for New Orleans and even in Baton Rouge.
Parking problems, so prevalent in Louisiana’s bigger cities, has been addressed in Portland by creating a plan that caps the number of parking spaces downtown, to encourage more people to take mass transit. The city is zoned so as to encourage less parking in downtown congested areas. And streetcars, similar to those in New Orleans, cover the downtown area. The difference is that, like light rail and buses, the streetcar is free. Their argument in favor of no fees is that less congestion and attracting more people to the inner city is well worth more than the loss of revenue from a rider fee.
Where New Orleans and Baton Rouge always make the national lists for biggest traffic bottlenecks, Portland is out of such a mix. One of the reasons is the “bike friendly” attitude, There are literally hundreds of miles of bike lanes, and new street construction includes bike set a sides. Portland has one of the highest concentrations of bike computers in the country, and most offices have bike racks available for parking.
The private sector is aggressively involved in Portland development. The city has an “Innovation Council” that brings together leaders from private business and higher education to drive the city’s innovation strategy, particularly in offering help for new startup companies. Louisiana’s strategy seems to be more an effort to retain out of state companies who continually “shop” for the best financial deal, and maintain few loyalties, outside of looking for the best incentives. Have we ever heard of the Mayor of New Orleans sitting down with the leaders at Tulane and LSU to encourage such a partnership?
Community policing is organized by the police department in Portland. There is a fully integrated effort to work in full cooperation with local subdivisions with the use of cameras, computers, and street volunteers. And worker compensation reform has been a front burner issue in Portland. The subject has not been discussed at the state or local level in Louisiana. But just this week, a new national study was released showing that the average worker’s comp costs per claim were some 35% higher than the national average. Little incentive here for new businesses to start up in Louisiana.
The “Portland Smart Program” has mobilized thousands of adults to spend time with kids in early grade levels so as to provide them a “village” of adult mentorship that is often lacking in many home settings. Such a simple low cost concept that is certainly needed in a poor state like Louisiana.
Now let’s not oversell Oregon and the northwest. Their food is bland and rather dry. They know little of spices, Tabasco and garlic. They brag out here about their music, but you can find musicians in numerous New Orleans locations that would outshine their best performers. Writers from that part of the country? I can’t name one. Sports teams? They would be minor leaguers in just about every sport when Louisiana and the south stay quite competitive.
Maybe that’s the swap. Let Oregon run our state government, and maybe even dysfunctional cities like New Orleans that seem to fall deeper each month into a cesspool of incompetence. And we send out our creative best to cook their food, supply their musical talent, chronicle their fictional interests with our Louisiana, writers, and put some tough Louisiana young folks on their athletic fields and in their stadiums. After all, we may not know how to handle tax dollars and run public agencies, but no one, and I mean no one, can stand up to the “Who Dat Nation.”
“Progress always involves risks. You cannot steal second base and keep your foot on first.”
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s weekly column appears in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the south. To read past columns going back to 2002, go to www.jimbrownla.com.