Gas taxes, Zika virus concerns and challenging State Treasurer John N. Kennedy to a paper and pencil duel over the state budget were among the topics Gov. John Bel Edwards took on in his third ever radio call-in show “Ask the Governor.”
In his third episode of the show, aired on stations across the state, Edwards was joined by Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne. The two responded to inquiries about the state’s budget crisis. Eager to help, several callers offered suggestions for the governor about ways to fix the state by trimming programs or fixing taxes.
One caller suggested taking advantage of the low gas prices in Louisiana by imposing a temporary gasoline tax.
Edwards noted that he recently appointed a task force to study and make recommendations about improving transportation conditions in the state. He predicted that one of the things they would look at is increasing gas taxes.
But he said the reason it’s not an option he has pushed in the Legislature this year to address the state’s budget shortfalls is because gas tax proceeds go into the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which is mandated for road improvements.
“It can’t be spent on hospitals, higher education, TOPS and K-12 education,” Edwards said. “It wouldn’t help us out with our most pressing problems right now.”
The caller also blamed much of the state’s budget problems on the sinking prices of crude oil and natural gas, which Edwards countered was only the tip of the iceberg.
He said 25 percent of the state’s budget problems can be blamed on oil prices, but the vast majority is related to problems he inherited from former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s repeated use of one-time funds for recurring costs in the state budget.
Dardenne told moderator Jim Engster that the state budget is far worse than he ever expected while running for office last year.
“It’s a lot worse than we had been anticipating. Every couple of weeks we discovered something new,” Dardenne said. “Some gimmick that had been used in the past that we’re simply not going to use.”
Another caller who sided with the governor, suggested that he challenge one of his most vocal political critics in state government to find the necessary cuts that would keep the state operational while closing the budget shortfall. Kennedy, who is running for U.S. Senate, has repeatedly criticized the governor for tax increase proposals and popularized the mantra that “Louisiana doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.”
The caller told Edwards to challenge Kennedy to “sit down with you and line item by line item to find $600 million to cut” to balance the state budget. Edwards is calling on the Legislature to find $600 million to close the state budget gap for the upcoming fiscal year starting in July 1.
“He wouldn’t be able to do it, just like the Legislature hasn’t be able to find the cuts,” Dardenne said.
Edwards added that he agrees that Louisiana has a spending problem, but the real issue is how much it spends on tax giveaways to businesses.
“We’re writing checks in a way to businesses that doesn’t produce an adequate return on investment,” he said.
Another caller from New Orleans expressed concern about gun violence, touching on the recent shooting in Orlando, Florida, where 49 people were killed at a night club and dozens more injured.
Edwards, who ran for governor as a pro-gun Democrat, maintained his unwavering support for the gun owner rights but suggested there could be room for common-sense regulations.
“I am a big time supporter of the Second Amendment,” he said. But he added that he was supportive of reforms like ensuring people who are on the “terrorist watch list” can not purchase guns. The Orlando shooter, according to the FBI, had previously been on a watch list but was allowed to legally purchase guns.
Edwards didn’t elaborate on any other “common-sense” reforms he’d support relating to gun control.
The final caller asked about what the state is doing to address the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease, that has been linked to causing birth defects in pregnant women.
Edwards said he is concerned about Zika in Louisiana, because of the warm climate and species of mosquitoes common to the state. He said he recently had phone calls with White House officials and is hopeful federal funding to combat Zika could be made available later this year.
But he stressed that while there have been isolated cases of people being diagnosed with Zika in Louisiana, they caught it while traveling outside of the country. No Zika has been transmitted while in Louisiana, he said.
Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen.
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