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Louisiana's energetic reformer. Governor pushes economic agenda to get state on track

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The Roemer revolution is on track and rolling along. Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, who took office in March promising reform for his high-spending but economically depressed state, has surprised friend and foe alike.

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Governor Roemer likens his task to that of a corporate CEO - say, a Lee Iacocca taking the reins of a bankrupt Chrysler. It is as much through persuasive intellect and sheer determination as through traditional political savvy that Mr. Roemer is seeing his vision adopted, with few exceptions so far, piece by piece.

Placing himself among the new generation of governors who are ``younger, more aggressive, more competitive, more managerial,'' the man who left Congress to run this state brings his hands down to his desk and says, ``This is where the action is.''

Close associates say Roemer has an eye on the White House. First, however, he'll have to turn what some have referred to as a banana republic - a state rich in natural resources, but poor in self-direction and educated leaders - into an example for the rest of the country.

In his first legislative session, which ended last month, the diminutive but energetic Roemer wasted little time learning the ropes, pushing through an agenda that still has traditionally populist Louisiana wondering exactly what happened. Among the items passed:

A $7.5 billion budget, balanced for the first time since 1984, accomplished by $450 million in cuts and some temporary - and controversial - sales-tax increases.

A 10-year plan for paying off the state's $1 billion debt by dedicating a penny of the four-cent state sales tax to debt payment.

Repeal of the state's ``prevailing wage'' law requiring union-scale wages on state construction projects.

A 5-percent reduction in unemployment benefits and tightening of eligibility standards, bringing Louisiana into line with other Southern states.

Education reforms that include a 20-percent teacher pay raise over the next three years, coupled with the state's first-ever teacher evaluations.

Abolition of the previously sacrosanct governor's slush fund - a discretionary fund used by governors for pet projects or to woo crucial vote blocs - which under former Gov. Edwin Edwards had soared as high as $50 million.

``It's been tremendous,'' says Mark Drennan, president of the Public Affairs Research Council and an advocate for state fiscal reform. ``The list just goes on and on.''

Yet even with those impressive victories behind him, Roemer faces a more daunting task in October, when he will summon the Legislature into special session to consider a constitutional reform package to overhaul the state income tax system.

Roemer's goal is to make Louisiana, currently the only state with double-digit unemployment, more attractive to business expansion by shifting the tax burden from business to individuals.

``Once we get this taken care of,'' he says, Louisiana will go national and international with a new theme: ``Open for business under new management.''

Seated in his spacious office on the third floor of the Huey Long-era, 27-story state capitol, Roemer says he senses ``we still have good momentum with us.''

Judging by his legislative success so far, Roemer could be right. Many of the changes he'll seek - repeal or reduction of inventory and franchise taxes, for example - reflect a shift away from an era when Louisiana could heavily tax a lucrative oil and gas industry, while virtually eliminating taxes on individuals. Most legislators and much of the public seem to accept that changes are necessary.

Where Roemer's plan will be more difficult to swallow, however, is in proposals that hit individual pocketbooks - especially middle-class ones. He will call for a reduction of up to two-thirds in the cherished ``homestead exemption,'' which eliminates taxes on the first $75,000 valuation of any residence. And he says he might seek to eliminate the federal-income-tax deduction on state tax returns.

Plans to reduce sales-tax rates in favor of higher state income taxes are likely to spark opposition among conservatives.

Unlike the reforms accomplished in the regular session, the tax overhaul, which involves constitutional issues, would require voter approval.

``A real test of how successful the governor has been with the public,'' says Jim Carvin, a political consultant in New Orleans, ``will come when we see whether they trust politicians enough to take away something [the homestead exemption] they have going for them in the constitution.''

Many observers also say that the fact that Roemer was not elected by a majority could hurt him if his tax-reform package is seen putting too much of a burden on the public. Roemer won the October 1987 election with 35 percent of the vote after former Governor Edwards, who came in second among five candidates, bowed out of a runoff.

``The great majority have never voted for him, so the more changes he ushers in and the more controversies he gets in, the easier it will be for people to turn against him,'' says Ed Renwick, director of the Institute of Politics at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Roemer says it was the state's fiscal crisis and general dissatisfaction that elected him.

``The people decided they were tired of business as usual in Louisiana, ... and I'm only heading where they wanted to go,'' Roemer says. ``We're not quite through the crisis, but we're getting closer to the other side.'' Once there, he adds, ``We'll be able to turn to economic development, education, the environment, and show America what Louisiana can do.''