Legal cannabis? Film tax credits? Louisiana governor candidates pitch how to boost tourism

By: - September 1, 2023 11:39 am
Richard Nelson

State Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville (Photo by Henrietta Wildsmith)

Reducing crime, retaining tax credits for film productions and legalizing marijuana are ways Louisiana’s governor candidates said the state could boost its tourism industry.

Six of the seven major gubernatorial candidates spoke Thursday to the Louisiana Travel Association at the group’s conference in Baton Rouge. Attorney General Jeff Landry, the presumed frontrunner in the governor’s race, did not attend. 

Tourism and travel are vital to Louisiana’s economy as one of the state’s largest industries. It’s the fourth largest employer and generated $17.1 billion in visitor spending in 2022, according to the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. Tourism also generated $1.9 billion in tax revenue last year.

Here are the ways the candidates for governor proposed improving tourism:

State Rep. Richard Nelson, Republican

Nelson supports legalizing recreational marijuana use, which he believes would attract more visitors, especially if Louisiana was the only state in the Deep South to do so. He also said the “culture wars” — proposals to restrict the LGBTQ+ community — are “bad for tourism” and hurt Louisiana’s travel industry.

“I tried to stay out of the culture wars” during Louisiana’s legislative session, the Mandeville lawmaker said,. Conservative lawmakers proposed a few bills to limit the rights of gay and transgender children. 

Nelson voted against the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill to ban discussions of sexual orientation and gender in K-12 classrooms and rejected an attempt to override Gov. John Bel Edwards’ veto of the measure. But Nelson supported a proposal to deny gender-affirming health care to transgender youth.

Business lobbyist Stephen Waguespack, Republican

Waguespack was one of several candidates to say that reducing Louisiana’s crime rate would help the tourism industry. Louisiana State Police were “down” 200 officers and their ranks needed to grow back to sustainable levels, he said.

Waguespack said he would also support local law enforcement having more body cameras and license plate readers. He also is also in favor of putting more cameras that law enforcement can access in public places where festivals and other large events take place.

The former general counsel for former Gov. Bobby Jindal, Waguespack touted the role he played in making sure New Orleans retained a professional basketball franchise in the city. The Jindal administration helped put together an agreement with the NBA in 2012 that kept the Hornets – now the Pelicans – in Louisiana. 

Trial attorney Hunter Lundy, Independent

Lundy did not speak directly to how he would address the tourism industry, though he went out of his way to say he did not support legalizing cannabis for recreational use.

The Lake Charles lawyer said he supports raising the minimum wage in Louisiana, though he didn’t offer specifics about how much he would like to see it increase. He also said he would be open to making exceptions to a minimum wage hike for certain types of businesses, including those in the agriculture and hospitality industries. 

State Treasurer John Schroder, Republican

Schroder said he “would not close down businesses” as governor — presumably a reference to restrictions Gov. John Bel Edwards put in place at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent spread of the virus.

COVID-19 was particularly hard on tourism. The state’s travel industry hasn’t fully recovered from the hit it took when people canceled vacations and conferences during the pandemic. Louisiana had 42.6 million visitors in 2022, which was still short of the 53 million visitors that came prior to the pandemic in 2019

Schroder boasted of his record as treasurer in administering the state’s Main Street Recovery Grant Program, aimed at helping small businesses recover from COVID-19 losses. 

State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, Republican

As governor, Hewitt would continue to support the state’s lucrative and sometimes controversial film tax credit program, where state resources are used to bring down the costs of movie and television productions in Louisiana. She said having Louisiana in movies and TV shows makes it more likely that people will want to visit the state. 

It is a “big opportunity to showcase our state,” Hewitt said.

The state senator from Slidell also believes Louisiana should be putting more money into airport infrastructure. She described the new New Orleans airport as “beautiful” but still hard to access from the ground. Flyover ramps from Interstate 10 to Armstrong Airport, completed in 2017, are expected to be in use before the Thanksgiving travel holiday, officials said.

Former state transportation secretary Shawn Wilson, Democrat

In an interview, Wilson said he would protect and stabilize the money for local tourism councils around the state, called enterprise funds. He also said he was interested in attracting tourism-adjacent businesses to Louisiana, such as “digital conferencing” companies.

The Democrat also wants to focus more of the Louisiana Economic Development agency’s funding and efforts on businesses already operating in the state. Many of those resources are currently spent on trying to lure out-of-state companies to Louisiana.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.