Jim Beam column: Can Waguespack change race?

Published 6:43 am Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Someone said recently that Louisiana voters might as well go ahead and elect Republican Stephen Waguespack as governor since business interests are already running the state. Businesses do have major influence, but I don’t think they have been as powerful as some believe.

Waguespack was the longtime CEO and president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) and it has been a major player. However, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards early in his over seven-year administration did something that LABI hasn’t been happy about since.

Edwards gave local governments a voice in whether industries would be able to take advantage of what most of the time amounted to an almost guaranteed 10-year exemption from local property taxes. It’s called the Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP).

Email newsletter signup

The state Board of Commerce and Industry approved most exemptions before the Edwards changes. Now, approval has to come from that board and local government entities.

Edwards also reduced the exemption from 100% to  80%. The property tax exemption continues to be for an initial term of five years and the option to renew for five additional years.

State Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, has filed Senate Bill 2 for the legislative session beginning April 10. It is a proposed constitutional amendment that limits the tax break for school boards in the state to only a 60-percent exemption.

Industries won’t be happy that the amendment also wouldn’t allow exemptions for maintenance, required environmental upgrades, miscellaneous capital improvements or replacements of existing machinery or equipment.

How legislators vote on Allain’s proposal will say a lot about how much influence business and industry has in the state. Senators were successful at the 2022 session in defeating an effort to put the Edwards industrial tax exemption changes in the state constitution.

The amendment got out of committee but lost in the full Senate. Republican senators cast all of the 21 votes against, and perhaps that is because many of them are pro-business.

The Advocate said Waguespack’s entry into the race has created some serious competition for Republican state Attorney General Jeff Landry, the current leader in campaign money and major endorsements. It added that Waguespack can also attract some serious campaign money from business owners.

Waguespack was a senior aide to former Gov. Bobby Jindal who easily won two terms as governor. Jindal was elected in the 2007 primary with 54% of the vote to 17% for his nearest competitor. He won a second term in the 2011 primary with 66% of the vote to 18% for his nearest competitor.

Jindal had a free ride in his early years, but state financial problems and his unsuccessful presidential run resulted in low approval numbers by the time he left office. We can expect Waguespack’s opponents to use his ties to Jindal as criticism in an expected heated campaign.

While all of that is true, Waguespack has a supporter who can give him a major boost if he is willing to go that far. He’s U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, whom many voters had hoped would enter the race.

Graves and Waguespack are good friends and when Graves decided not to enter the race, he said, “In the coming days, the field for governor will brighten. And Louisiana will have a generational opportunity to write America’s greatest comeback story.”

It’s obvious Graves was talking about his good friend Waguespack. The newspaper said political analysts say Waguespack fits a profile that many voters want: a conservative who focuses on creating jobs and improving education, even while working with independents and Democrats.

Speaking of Democrats, don’t count out Shawn Wilson, the former secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development. As the only major Democrat to announce for governor so far, political analysts believe he has an excellent chance to make the runoff.

The unknown at this point is which Republican might make the runoff with Wilson if he does make it. Voters will make that determination and they have to ask themselves who they like out of the major contenders.

In addition to Landry and Waguespack, the other major Republicans are state Treasurer John Schroder, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt of Slidell and state Rep. Richard Nelson of Mandeville. Hunter Lundy of Lake Charles is an independent and he also has voter appeal.

We won’t know the final lineup until Aug. 10. However, there is already a wide range of candidates from which to choose and it promises to be another one of those wild and woolly Louisiana election campaigns.