Louisiana’s seven-year tax deal, aimed at bringing a cease-fire to the state’s tax feuds after seven special legislative sessions across three years, hasn’t ended the tax debates, which now have become central to the governor’s race.
While Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards skips direct talk of the tax hikes he supported, his two major Republican challengers bring up the higher taxes at every opportunity and pledge to lessen the increased charges on people and businesses.
U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone don’t mention the GOP lawmakers who helped pass the taxes in the majority-Republican Legislature — and they also don’t offer specific ideas of where they’d cut state spending in Louisiana’s $30 billion operating budget to keep the budget balanced, as the state constitution requires.
Abraham and Rispone deliberately dodge such budget cut questions, not wanting to single out specific programs that would get less money or offer fewer services — an exercise that could alienate voters who might disagree with the cuts proposed.
The GOP candidate’s promises come without getting into the reality of their impact.
“We have to do something. We’re taxing the middle-income and lower-income families. We have to do something different. And I’d like to look at all taxes. We have to be competitive in Louisiana,” Rispone, a long-time political contributor from Baton Rouge who is running for his first political office, said when he signed up for the Oct. 12 ballot.
Asked where he’d trim spending to offset the tax cuts, Rispone’s responses got murky, with the candidate speaking in broad generalities about making structural changes. He said he’d require agencies to start from zero and justify any money they receive and he would hire “some very talented people” to manage departments.
“I really believe that we’re going to be more efficient like we do in business, use those business skills to go in there and look at that,” Rispone said.
Abraham also talks about his intention to cut taxes in generalities.
“Taxes have to be lowered. That’s what stimulates business. That’s what stimulates income from you,” the third-term congressman and doctor told state Republican Party leaders on a recent Saturday.
He, too, gets much less direct when asked how he’d balance the budget if such tax cuts were passed. He told reporters he’d make government more efficient.
“We will cut a lot of issues, but they will be where the waste, fraud and abuse is. It won’t be services that the people need, I can assure you of that,” Abraham said after qualifying for the governor’s race.
He then steadfastly refused to agree that lowering taxes would mean less money for state coffers. He suggested Louisiana would draw tax dollars from the new businesses and people his administration would attract to the state after taxes were cut — with no lag time where tax collections would shrink.
“Just because you cut taxes doesn’t mean the next day you’re going to cut revenue. If you cut taxes, more people buy into the system. And if you have more people buying in, then they’re paying in taxes,” Abraham said.
He’s pointed to the recent congressional tax cuts as stimulating the economy, without explaining they have swollen the federal deficit, at least in the short-term.
As he pledges to lower taxes, Abraham also is promising increased spending.
To the Republican State Central Committee, he talked of building more roads and bridges, to shrink a multibillion-dollar backlog. To Louisiana’s sheriffs, Abraham talked of raising the daily rate they receive for housing state prisoners in their local jails by $7 to $10 per day, a proposal that carries a price tag of about $60 million yearly, and boosting the pay supplement the state provides to local law enforcement, costing millions more.
“The money is there. There are pots of money that nobody’s talking about that can be used,” the congressman told sheriffs.
Asked after the event for examples of available money, Abraham said there are “many,” but wouldn’t list specific funds or accounts.
Those types of generalities may carry candidates through an election cycle, but they can’t be used to balance a budget in office.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000.