At governor candidates forum, David Vitter, Jay Dardenne, Scott Angelle, John Bel Edwards tap-dance around central issue in race

The four men who would be governor wore dark business suits and sat in red cocktail chairs at the New Orleans Jazz Market during the latest candidate forum on Friday.

But each one repeatedly tap-danced around a central issue in the governor’s race: Who will be required to pay higher taxes to fix the state’s decrepit roads, avoid deeper spending cuts to LSU and preserve the state’s vanishing coast?

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and state Rep. John Bel Edwards all touted leadership skills from years of public service when asked whether they would end any of the hundreds of tax breaks built into state law. They all seemed to agree that the state needs to find more revenue, one way or another, to meet its pressing needs.

But Vitter was the only one who identified a tax break that he wants to end, the tax credit that subsidizes the installation of solar energy systems. Yet the long-term savings of doing that will be minimal since the Legislature has already votedto have the solar tax break expire midway through the next governor’s term.

In the same fashion, the four candidates said policymakers should closely examine which individual programs that automatically receive funding every year — known in the State Capitol as statutory dedications — ought to be eliminated. But none of the candidates identified a single one that must disappear.

Dardenne said he has a deep knowledge of state government because he chaired the Senate Finance Committee and has spent five years as lieutenant governor.

Asked about the state’s infrastructure, Dardenne readily ticked off the needs: end congestion on Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge, complete Interstate 49, build a new bridge over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge and replace the I-10 bridge in Lake Charles. But when it got to the question of how to pay for it, he went no further than to say: “We’re going to have to have a very candid discussion about what’s affordable.”

Angelle took the favorite fail-safe position of candidates, calling for a study commission that he called the Exemption Review Conference, to determine which of the $7.5 billion of tax breaks ought to be zeroed out.

Friday’s forum was sponsored by the Southeast Super Region Committee, which promotes jobs and investment in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Chairmen of three local business groups asked questions with a decidedly business slant.

Bill Hoffman, senior vice president of corporate planning and development at Woodward Design + Build, and the chairman of Greater New Orleans, Inc., questioned the Legislature’s decision during the 2015 session to take away business tax breaks and asked the candidates whether they would reverse that move.

Edwards, the only Democrat in the race, gave an answer that the sponsors probably didn’t appreciate. He said the Legislature and Gov. Bobby Jindal have cut spending during the past seven years and that taking a bite out of the business tax breaks was necessary to help balance the budget and stave off the possible bankruptcy of LSU’s main campus in Baton Rouge.

“For one year, we reduced some tax expenditures on a temporary basis,” Edwards said, adding that the Legislature and governor ought to limit the cost of tax breaks and how long they can remain in effect.

Edwards added that the revenue raised from curtailing some tax breaks by 28 percent helped pay for the operation of the big New Orleans hospital that opened a month ago.

Edwards, who is a lawyer from Amite, also pushed back at the pro-business sponsors when he criticized the Legislature’s 2014 vote to kill a lawsuit that sought to put oil and gas companies on trial to pay for drilling activity that caused coastal erosion.

Vitter, in sharp contrast, called for greater limits on those kinds of lawsuits to create a better investment climate in Louisiana.

One of the people in the audience was Loulan Pitre, a former state representative from Lafourche Parish who has created a political action committee with former shipbuilder Boysie Bollinger that is seeking to elect legislative candidates who will support Vitter’s view.

The forum also posed the question: Who’s worse, a politician from Baton Rouge or Washington, D.C.?

Vitter, who has spent the past 16 years in Congress, took a shot at “Baton Rouge” politicians. Angelle didn’t address the issue, but Dardenne and Edwards in turn questioned the values of one from Washington.

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