The two candidates for secretary of state clashed Thursday over a legislative pay hike, property tax breaks and whether state museum operations have to be trimmed amid Louisiana’s budget problems.
Republican Secretary of State Tom Schedler is being challenged by House Speaker Jim Tucker, of Terrytown, also a Republican, in the Oct. 22 primary.
The pair traded views during an hourlong forum sponsored by The League of WoMen Voters of Baton Rouge and WBRZ-TV.
The Office of Secretary of State is best known for overseeing elections in Louisiana.
The sharpest exchanges on Thursday focused elsewhere, including Schedler’s criticism of Tucker’s lead role in 2008 for a highly charged legislative pay raise.
The plan that lawmakers approved would have boosted their pay packages from about $38,000 per year to nearly $60,000 annually.
Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed the measure after a public outcry.
“You led that charge,” Schedler said of Tucker. “You said you prayed on it.”
And when it passed, Schedler said, Tucker traded high-fives with colleagues.
Tucker said he backed the bill as a way to ensure that people could afford to serve in the Legislature, and that he had no plans to accept the increase himself.
Meanwhile, Tucker criticized Schedler for benefiting from having two homestead property tax exemptions in 2004, 2005 and 2006 in St. Tammany Parish.
The exemption is one of the state’s most coveted tax breaks.
It gives homeowners relief from most property taxes on the first $75,000 of value of their primary residence.
Schedler said the two exemptions stemmed from a mistake in the St. Tammany Parish Assessor’s Office and he failed to catch it.
“I take responsibility for that,” Schedler said. “And I paid each and every penny back.”
The pair also disagreed on the impact of state budget cuts in the Secretary of State’s Office.
Operating hours for smaller museums have been cut, amid other reductions.
Schedler said the moves stemmed from a $832,000 budget cut approved by the Legislature.
“I had no choice to do what I had to do,” he said.
“It is an issue the Legislature is going to have to address,” Schedler said.
Tucker said he plans to “scrub the budget” of the Secretary of State’s Office, whose operations total about $81 million per year, to aid museums.
“We can find the money,” he said.
On another issue, Schedler defended his vote for the 2002 Stelly tax plan when he served in the state Senate.
The measure, which voters approved, repealed the state sales tax on groceries and utilities.
It also compressed state income tax brackets to offset the loss of tax revenue.
Schedler said that, while he saw the constitutional amendment as a way to get rid of some temporary taxes, his vote also relied on “bad information” about the impact of the measure.
Tucker countered that, even at the time, there was skepticism that the Stelly plan would be revenue neutral.
In 2008, the Legislature voted to return state tax rates to pre-Stelly levels, which trimmed state taxes by $359 million per year initially.
In other areas, Schedler suggested that Tucker wants to be secretary of state as a steppingstone to another office.
Schedler, who was first assistant to former Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, assumed the top job when Dardenne became lieutenant governor last year.
“I have the job that I love,” he said. “I don’t need any on-the-job training.”
Tucker, who became House speaker nearly four years ago, said he was part of the state leadership team that promised government reforms.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have done that over the past four years,” he said.