A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking Louisiana’s gubernatorial contest has boiled down to electing President Barack Obama as governor or continuing the outgoing administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal, but on steroids.
At least that’s what the advertising, social media and campaign narratives seem to be focusing on in the race between Democrat John Bel Edwards and Republican David Vitter.
The governor’s election is set for Nov. 21. A televised debate is scheduled for Nov. 16.
On some issues, they are starkly different: Edwards wants a higher minimum wage to help raise the state’s lowly paid working class, about half the state. Vitter argues that setting a minimum wage would inhibit businesses from creating jobs, the proven way to lift the underclass into prosperity.
In truth, however, they agree on a lot.
Both are against abortion but are for guns. Both oppose Common Core. And both say they will call the Legislature into session soon after being inaugurated to address the budget mess inherited from Jindal, whose management of the state both criticize.
Edwards and Vitter agree that the money BP pays in fines for its part in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill should go toward restoring the state’s coastline, which is eroding in geometric proportions everyday.
With elected officials looking around for revenue to cover needs, they have cast an eye on some of the millions of dollars BP is paying.
“As governor I’m going to simply demand that those funds are used for the intended purpose,” Vitter said.
Edwards agreed: “We need a governor who will dig in his heels.”
On some other issues, they hold similar, though nuanced, views.
For instance, both men oppose same-sex marriage, but Edwards differs in that he would require public officials to follow current law. “I don’t believe anyone is free to deny those marriage licenses once the Supreme Court has ruled,” Edwards said.
Opposing the recreational use of marijuana is another issue on which Vitter and Edwards agree. Neither candidate has tried it.
But Edwards supported legislation that would allow the medicinal use of the drug. Vitter disagrees, saying the bill puts physicians, who would have to prescribe marijuana use, in jeopardy of losing their licenses to practice.
Both are open to unraveling Jindal’s ardent refusal to take the billions of federal dollars offered as incentives to change the qualification definitions of Medicaid in order to allow more of the working poor to access the health care program. But Edwards and Vitter would go about it differently.
Medicaid is government-paid insurance that covers the health care costs for the poor — about one-fourth of Louisiana’s population. Another 200,000 to 400,000 people earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to find adequate insurance on the private market.
Edwards, who, as House minority leader, led multiple unsuccessful efforts to override Jindal’s refusal to expand Medicaid rolls, said he would “do it Day One.”
In addition to providing tens of millions of dollars to the state’s budget, Edwards says, providing a means to health care for several hundred thousand Louisiana workers is “a matter of moral responsibility.”
Vitter said he would not take Medicaid expansion “off the table, but in order for that to be a responsible option, I think we need to make sure of several things.”
Vitter wants a clear plan for how hospitals and service providers would provide the dollars to pay for the state’s match. And he insists that those taking advantage of the expanded coverage have jobs, a provision the federal government has, so far, rejected.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to just increase benefits in a way that is an additional incentive not to work for able-bodied people,” Vitter said.
Both candidates want to tackle the state’s budget, which has careened from crisis to crisis under Jindal. State government has been unable to raise enough revenue to pay for state operations, resulting in public colleges and health care — the two chief unprotected programs — taking the brunt of spending cuts.
Neither candidate sees tax increases as the method of raising revenues, and both agree that some cuts in government operations are in order.
But healing the fiscal structure will require rolling back some of the $7 billion in tax breaks granted as incentives to business and require unlocking some of the dedications that guarantee funding to certain programs.
Exactly which of the credits, exemptions and deductions would be targeted is unclear.
Edwards has talked about changing the film tax credit program and a little-known tax break that benefits local insurance companies. But the only specific exemption he has said he would target is the payback for the horizontal drilling (fracking) of oil and natural gas wells. Ending that exemption would save little.
Vitter said he would further target tax breaks for installing solar panels. But a phase out already has been enacted by the Legislature and would generate little additional money for the state’s treasury.
Vitter said he outlined the approach he would take in his plan, which is posted online, but would get more specific once elected.
“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,” Vitter said, adding that some are clearly corporate welfare by another name.
“I do think we need to really put all of these credits, exemptions and deductions under a microscope, see what are justified, what produces for the taxpayer and which ones do not.”
Vitter wants to require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to pass any new tax credit, which would make it tougher to pass. A two-thirds vote is required to raise taxes, but tax breaks can be added with the approval of a simple majority of legislators.
Both candidates advocate a sunset on all tax credits and rebates, meaning the Legislature would have to vote periodically to keep any such program in place.
“I would cap every tax credit and every tax rebate to make sure we know what they’re going to cost and so we can budget accordingly,” Edwards said.
He said a good place to start would be the recommendations made in a recent study of the state’s tax system by LSU and Tulane University economists. The proposals included getting rid of the enterprise tax credit program, which encourages businesses to move into underserved areas, as well as reviewing all oil and gas industry taxes and benefits.
Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter @MarkBallardCNB.
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