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Ethics law targets Louisiana's old ways

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal gives his inauguration speech, Jan. 14, 2008.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman was released from a federal prison in Louisiana today. Siegelman's out on bond while he appeals his conviction for bribery-related corruption.

Native Louisiana politicians are going to have to start toeing the straight and narrow themselves. A new set of ethics laws goes into effect Sunday. The Bayou state's got a long history of questionable relationships between businessmen and politicians. Kate Archer Kent reports from Red River Radio that the new governor's trying to change that.


KATE ARCHER KENT: When it comes to doing business in Louisiana, people tend to think about one thing. And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal doesn't shy away from it.

BOBBY JINDAL:When you talk to business leaders, the No. 1 thing they bring up over and over is: We love Louisiana. We love the ports, the resources, the people. But we don't want to have to hire somebody's brother-in-law. We don't want to know the right person to do business. Who you know should not be more important than what you know when it comes to doing business in Louisiana.

Under the new laws, elected officials won't be able to bid on state contracts; lobbyists won't be able to court lawmakers with lavish meals and free tickets, among other reforms. Baton Rouge businessman Sean Reilly fought for these laws. He's chief operating officer at Lamar Advertising, Louisiana's only NASDAQ 100 company. He says corruption isn't just a Louisiana problem.

SEAN REILY: Louisiana is not the only place where you can get home cooked. In the business I'm in, I have been home cooked in other states. I know what it's like. And I know what I feel like. I know what I feel like when I feel like it wasn't a fair shake.

But, like the governor, Reilly realizes that Louisiana still has to do something decisive about its image problem if it's to attract business. His aim: to make the state as transparent as any public company.

The reforms are already making some firms think twice about leaving Louisiana. Dean Taylor's CEO of Tidewater, a New Orleans-based shipbuilding company. He had to move some of his executives to Houston after Katrina, and he says he prefers that city's business climate. He was all set to move the entire company, but he wants to give Louisiana a chance.

DEAN TAYLOR: I've told everyone, including Gov. Jindal, that our decision is not forever. It's, you know, it's a decision that we will revisit. And we'll revisit it in view of what progress we perceive the state making, in making the business environment more friendly.

But it's not just corruption that makes businesses balk at Louisiana. Elliot Stonecipher's a demographer and political analyst. He cites the state's untrained workforce, failing schools, brain drain and Hurricane Katrina blight. Ethics reform, he says, is one step on a very long road.

ELLIOT STONECIPHER: If it's a CEO who is trying to decide whether or not to build a plant, bring a company here with a bunch of jobs -- and that's what we were told this was all about -- they are not about to decide, in my opinion and based on anything we've been able to read, "Oh, OK, now we can see that Louisiana is changing. It's going to be a much better atmosphere."

Stonecipher's a keen student of Louisiana history, and he's not entirely confident Gov. Jindal's reforms will even be enforced.

STONECIPHER: The assumption in Louisiana ethics laws for over 40 years has been a wink and a nod.

Lawmakers are already tinkering with the reforms. When the Legislature convenes Monday, they'll consider changes that should clarify the laws. Gov. Jindal says he's confident his reforms won't be watered down in the process.

I'm Kate Archer Kent for Marketplace.

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