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More than just a Nice Guy

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Baton Rouge, Louisiana



 The accolades for former Louisiana Governor Dave Treen have been pouring in, and rightly so.  He has been called a lot of nice names and everyone quoted has pegged him as a “good guy.”Â  He was “an inspiration,” said Governor Bobby Jindal.  “A wonderful, sweet guy” lauded Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu.  “A gracious man” wrote columnist Smiley Anders. All these accolades are right on the mark.  But Dave Treen’s legacy will not be based on what a friendly fellow he was.  We all know lots of friendly political figures. History will treat him well, and acknowledge him as the first and, perhaps only, true conservative Louisiana Governor in the past century.

His philosophy was simple. Have state government provide basic public services, keep up the infrastructure, and provide public   protection. No meddling in private business, No political deals to benefit supporters.  He just wanted to create a healthy business climate, run the state efficiently, and then tell government to “just get out of the way.”Â  See that the trains run on time. Nothing creative or entrepreneurial.  That wasn’t the job, according to Treen, of state government.  

 Dave Treen was elected Louisiana Governor in 1979 in a close election against then Public Service Commissioner Louis Lambert.  Voter fraud had been alleged in both the first primary where Lt. Governor Jimmy Fitzmorris had been nudged out of the runoff, as well as the general election itself.  I joined the statewide fray having been elected as Secretary of State at the same time. Shortly after taking office, the new Governor suggested we meet to talk over the election process.  He wanted a full investigation into any of the election fraud allegations, and we both agreed on creating an Election Integrity Commission, the first such investigative body by any state in the country.    The Governor candidly told me his first election try for congress in 1968 has been stolen from him due to voter fraud and he wanted it stopped.  Republican officials seemed convinced that fraudulent votes in some Orleans Parish precincts benefited incumbent Hale Boggs and that Treen may have actually won the election. There were rumors of election officials who cast votes for people who did not show up at the polls and signed for them in the precinct registers. Treen did not contest the election because he believed that a challenge before the majority-Democratic House would be futile.

I never saw anyone so enmesh themselves in the details of government.  Some criticized Treen for being so deliberative and slow to make a decision.  He would be ridiculed unmercifully by Edwin Edwards in their future election confrontations when Edwards accused Treen of taking an hour and a half to watch 60 minutes.  But that was his strength.  He did not jump head first into some quick fix financial boondoggle expecting immediate results.  Treen knew it would take years to dig the state out of the hole left by short-range thinking administrations going back many decades.

I tagged along on a helicopter trip with the Governor when we were both invited to speak to a Chamber of Commerce meeting in New Iberia.  He read over a request on a budget matter the whole way over and back, something Edwin Edwards might have spent 4 or 5 minutes with.  “These decisions often set precedents that are followed by years,” he said.  “I want to be sure I get it right.”Â  Too much time spent?  Not for Dave Treen.

Treen never would have allowed spending billions of dollars to attract and bribe new businesses to the state.  He agreed with now deceased Senator “Sixty” Rayburn who said:  “˜Give em’ money to come and they’ll be your sweetheart for awhile.  But you know darn well they’ll head to another state when all the tax credits are used up and there’s no more money for the takin’.”

I talked this week with Greg LeRoy, author of JobsScam, about state giveaways to bribe out of state businesses to move in.  He recognized Dave Treen as a solid conservative who knew that the best way to attract new companies was with lower business taxes and a healthy business climate rather than dangling subsidies. And, according to Greg, Louisiana has still not learned Dave Treen’s lesson.

He observed: “Louisiana, like other Southern states, has tried for decades to improve its economy by granting enormous subsidies to individual footloose factories relocating from the Northeast and Midwest. All too often, those businesses showed little loyalty when their tax breaks expired, moving onto Mexico or China. And in the case of its petrochemical industry (which isn’t going anywhere), Louisiana has granted costly property tax exemptions that have also undermined parish and board budgets. By impoverishing their tax base in the name of jobs, the state’s public officials have perversely harmed the “business climate.” They have depressed the state’s ability to deliver on the things that really matter for economic development: rising educational attainment and efficient roads and other infrastructure. Instead of putting so many eggs in a few corporate baskets, Louisiana would prosper by investing in skills and infrastructure that benefit all employers — and stay put no matter which companies come or go.”

Unfortunately for Louisiana, the results bare out Leroy’s conclusions.  Site Selection Magazine just last week released their annual state rankings of overall business climate.  Louisiana dropped from ranking 22nd last year to 25th this year. What’s even worse is that every other southern state is ahead of Louisiana.  Even Mississippi.  Dave Treen would have been dismayed.

And the former Governor was certainly a strong conservative in courageously raising his objections when he felt there was government oppression.  Treen wrote the forward to the new biography of Edwin Edwards due out in early December.  Here’s what he had to say about the Edwards conviction.  “I believe the federal government, and by that I mean Judge Frank Polozola, doubled his (Edwards’) sentence from the prescribed five years purely out of vindictiveness,” Treen wrote in the foreword.  “They didn’t like him. That’s not a good reason to double someone’s sentence and is, I believe, a misuse of power.”

Any conservative worth his salt would certainly object to blatant misuse of power. Dave Treen had strong feelings about what government should do and not do.  He eloquently expressed a litany of conservative values and ideas in a book he wrote back in 1974, while in Congress about conservative principals and pursuing what you believe in.  It was called Can we afford this House?  “Ideas have consequences,” he wrote.”They need to be implemented.”Â  Dave Treen wanted to have government help in a number of ways, but knew there were costs to consider and “consequences.”

Yes, Dave Treen was a nice guy. But history will remember him as having core beliefs and sticking to his guns.   We could use a lot more like him in public office today. 


“I’m not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.”

Thomas Jefferson 

Peace and Justice

 Jim Brown 

  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.  

4 Responses
  1. Jeff Sadow

    There many other ways in which Treen did not act as a conservative. He asked for a huge tax increase, ironically defeated by allies of EWE. He launched upon a wholesale expansion of government, principally through the creation of the DEQ. Government in Louisiana continued to grow in size and dollars through his four years.

    A “big government” conservative, such as Pres. Goerge W. Bush, yes Treen was. A genuine conservative who believed in cutting the size of government to do only what the private sector could not do, and who wanted to cut taxes to let people keep and invest more of that they earned, no he was not.

  2. John Wood


    This is a great article. And I agree that we could use more “servants of the people” who support the ideas of promoting business and reducing the size and influence of government in our state and the nation.

    John Wood – Shreveport

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