By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West news
COVINGTON – The four candidates vying for the District 77 seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives were faced with a variety of questions at the St. Tammany West Chamber public forum held last week.
But regardless what the questions were about there was always one recurring issue that continued to surface for whoever becomes the next state rep from western St. Tammany Parish—the looming “fiscal cliff” and recurring budget crisis the state of Louisiana has been facing year-after-year.
A packed crowd of business leaders from the community were at the Clarion Hotel in Covington for the luncheon that brought out all four candidates who qualified for the House of Representatives seat that will be decided in the Oct. 14 special election. The position became vacant when longtime state Rep. John Schroder resigned that job to run for state treasurer.
Lisa Condrey Ward, Rob Maness, Casey Revere and Mark Wright are the four candidates seeking the position and were greeted out of the box with the big issue they will all face—“What will you do about the so-called fiscal cliff that is looming by 2018?”
The fiscal cliff is a term used to refer to the Louisiana budget deficit that has been projected to be as much as $1.5 billion by next year. The state has faced recent deficits ranging as much as $400 million a year, but the next one will dwarf what lawmakers have faced in the past.
The problem is because there is a 1 cent sales tax that is scheduled to expire, leaving lawmakers the unpleasant option of putting the tax back up for a renewal—something that hasn’t enjoyed popular support at all.
However the matter is addressed—and Louisiana must end the session with a balanced budget—it is a huge topic for all members of the Legislature, and something each of the candidates had ideas about addressing.
“We will need to look at every possible place in the state budget to save money,” Ward said. “It’s a daunting task, but there are ways to fix it and it will take negotiations—reaching across the aisle.
“One immediate answer is to devote more to Medicaid since every dollar we put up brings in $3 from the feds,” she said.
Maness said the problem isn’t enough revenue as much as it is a lack of spending discipline.
“The problem is that the Legislature continues to spend every dollar they expect to have,” he said. “Last year they had a budget spending 97.5 percent, and by the time the session ended it was up to 100 percent.
“We don’t have a revenue problem we have a spending problem,” he said. “We need to reform the entire budget process and we certainly need to say no to all new taxes.”
Revere added that “we can figure this out without raising taxes. There is so much wasted state dollars and I’m tired of seeing the head butting. Nothing will get done as long as the two sides are fighting.”
Wright suggested the deficit may not end up being nearly that high, perhaps only half of what has been projected, if the sales tax is retained as perhaps a half-cent.
“We don’t have to have all the tax as the governor has suggested,” he said.
Louisiana’s long list of dedicated funds has been a long-standing sore point, with past legislative sessions dedicating 63 percent of the annual revenue to specific items that cannot share revenue with other line items.
There are almost 400 dedicated funds in Louisiana and all four candidates agreed that had to change to free up monies that could help with the deficit problems.
“We can’t make proper decisions when so much of the money is dedicated,” Maness said. “I’m not saying all the dedicated funds are a problem, but we need a Constitutional Convention to change a lot of them.”
Ward pointed to the numerous exemptions currently on the books for corporations, but wasn’t complaining about them as much as the 8 percent corporate tax that prospective out-of-state businesses see when considering Louisiana.
“When businesses see we have an 8 percent corporate tax it tells them not to come here,” Ward said. “But then we don’t even collect a lot of that money due to exemptions. That tax rate scares off businesses.”
Even the state infrastructure funding turned into a budget question since the Louisiana Department of Transportation (DOTD) is reportedly between 15 and 20 years behind in funding all the road work approved by lawmakers.
When asked how the candidates could improve that situation to help needed roadwork in St. Tammany Parish there were a variety of answers.
“We need to look at other states to get ideas on how to operate our state highway department more efficiently,” Wright said. “We need to take the politics out of it.”
A proposal in the recently concluded state session to raise the gas tax 17 cents a gallon was eventually defeated, but clearly there is a sentiment to consider that.
“I was opposed to raising the gas tax since it would hit the working class very hard,” Maness said. “We need to show the people that the 38 cents a gallon they pay now for gas taxes is being utilized properly.”
Ward said the state needs to have an objective matrix to see what kind of return on investment the state would get for doing work in certain areas—in other words, how will improved highways improve business and tax revenue for the state.
A final question addressed recent rumors that St. Tammany Parish had monies cut from the new budget because much of the parish legislative delegation voted against Gov. John Bel Edwards on many issues. How would the new candidates handle that delicate situation?
“We need to remember that we don’t give anything up without getting something back,” Wright said. “It’s about the need to negotiate better.”
Ward pointed out the fact she is the only Independent party candidate in the race.
“We’ve become more divisive due to the party names,” she said. “No one person or one party has all the answers. I’ve had 30 years as a negotiator as a lawyer and businesswoman and I think I’m pretty good at it.”
Maness tried to trump that by noting “I have 35 years of collaborative experience,” he said. “There is always a place to come together, but people have to know what you won’t compromise on. There are a lot of smart people who don’t have the experience to find solutions. I know that I can.”
A final lightning round of questions were given with “yes” or “no” answers.
“Would you close some colleges?” Ward, Maness, Wright—Yes. Revere—No.
“Would you support an increased gas tax?” Ward, Maness—Yes. Revere, Wright—No.
“Will you be a full time representative?” Ward, Maness, Revere—Yes. Wright—No.