Louisiana Governor Candidates Short On Budget Fix Specifics

BATON ROUGE (AP) — The four men who want to be Louisiana's next governor largely agree that patchwork fixes and generous tax breaks have left the state in dire need of a financial overhaul and awash in red ink.

         But ask Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, state Rep. John Bel Edwards or U.S. Sen. David Vitter to detail how they'll clean up the mess, and the responses get murky. The major candidates in the Oct. 24 race each detail a broad-brush approach, short on specifics.

         Getting too specific can alienate campaign supporters, donors and voters. And most voters aren't clamoring for details after nearly eight years of financial problems, said Baton Rouge-based pollster Bernie Pinsonat.

         "It's amazing how many problems we have and the public has just tuned it out," he said. "The public's not asking for it. And if they provide the specifics, like 'I'm going to raise your taxes,' then adios. The voters aren't going to support you."

         Whoever is elected will walk into an immediate maelstrom of troubles in mid-January. Louisiana ended last year with a deficit that needs to be closed, gaps have appeared in this year's budget, and a more than $700 million shortfall is on the horizon for next year.

         "If you add all the numbers together, it's about a billion dollars of red ink," said Treasurer John Kennedy, a Republican.

         It's unclear whether term-limited Gov. Bobby Jindal, running for the Republican presidential nomination, will work to lessen some of the problems before leaving office.

         All the gubernatorial rivals say they'd need to call at least one special legislative session after taking office to work on tax reform.

         Edwards, a Democrat from Tangipahoa Parish, and Dardenne, a Republican from Baton Rouge, envision calling two special sessions, the first to deal with immediate budget gaps and another to tackle long-term tax changes. Angelle, a Republican from Breaux Bridge, also says it could take more than one session to work through the budget disarray.

         Perhaps the most important starting point is none of the men has agreed to the constraints that Jindal put on eight years of budget negotiations. Jindal refused to support anything he considered a tax increase, including spending cuts on most tax break programs, even as those costs ballooned amid a national recession.

         Where once talk about raising state revenue would have been rare, particularly in the GOP, now each candidate talks of generating new dollars, though none is openly pushing for a direct tax increase. Instead, they describe curbing some of the $7 billion-plus in state tax breaks, to pump more money into the state's coffers.

         Even Vitter, the most conservative candidate in the race, said Louisiana can't fix its budget problems through cuts alone.

         "I would raise more revenue, but there's a big difference between jacking up rates like the income tax rate and broadening the base by getting rid of exemptions, credits and rebates," said Vitter, a Republican from the New Orleans suburbs.

         Angelle proposes to create an Exemption Review Conference, with economists doing a tax break cost-benefit analysis. Angelle said he'd seek to get rid of those deemed to have little benefit.

         "We have gotten drunk on giving away the people's money," he said.

         Edwards wants to cap every tax break so the state will know how much it will spend each year on the programs, rather than allowing unexpected escalations that force cuts elsewhere.

         "That's where we need to cut spending and reallocate those savings to higher priority items like health care and higher education," Edwards said.

         The candidates also talk of unlocking protections granted to parts of the budget that make it more difficult to cut some agencies' spending and leave public colleges and health services more vulnerable.

         But asked to list tax breaks they want to ratchet down or budget protections they want to remove, details are slim.

         Dardenne and Edwards support lessening a tax break given to the oil and gas industry for horizontal drilling, though they acknowledged savings would be small. Vitter talks of getting rid of the solar tax credit, which is already being phased out. Angelle says a $10 million annual stream of technology funding for the Legislature shouldn't be protected.

         Vitter said he's outlined the approach he'd take and will get more specific when elected. Dardenne said any budget and tax overhaul plan will need negotiation, buy-in from lawmakers and selling to the public.

         One thing the state doesn't need more of, Dardenne said, are studies about what's wrong.

         "We have masters' degrees in Louisiana in assessing our problems," he said. "We have now got to be in the business of solving them."

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte




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