Top campaign way off track

BRIDGE PROMISE — U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham of Louisiana is copying President Trump's promise to build a new Interstate 10-Calcasieu River bridge at Lake Charles.

Louisiana’s gubernatorial campaign could use a heavy dose of reality. The two Republican candidates taking on Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards are all over the map instead of talking about the real issues.

U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, was in Lake Charles Monday promising, with President Trump’s help, to build a new Interstate 10-Calcasieu River Bridge here. He made sure he got the most out of his staged political event by saying a new bridge isn’t a priority for Gov. Edwards. Abraham happened to be in Lake Charles for a “meet and greet” that evening.

The citizens in the Baton Rouge area also need a new Interstate 10 bridge over the Mississippi River. You have to wonder if Abraham is going to promise them one, too.

Getting federal money to build new bridges anywhere in this state is going to be difficult. Louisiana has already mortgaged future federal highway funds for years to construct other road and bridge projects.

Louisiana is one of the few states in the nation that has refused to increase its 20-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax. A higher tax won’t fund all of the state’s road and bridge needs, but it would definitely help.

Businessman Eddie Rispone of Baton Rouge, the other GOP candidate, has done his dead-level best to out-Trump Abraham. Rispone makes it clear in one of his $5 million worth of TV spots that he supports anything Trump likes.

Trump is definitely popular in Louisiana, but getting federal money for new bridges here and elsewhere is going to take votes in Congress. Unfortunately, Congress in recent years has been much like the state Legislature. Not much is getting done on either government front.

Give credit to controversial Edwin W. Edwards. The former four-term Louisiana governor told The Advocate last week the national and state political environment is terrible. He said nothing is getting done because “there is too much acrimony, hypocrisy and unwillingness to compromise.”

Both GOP candidates continue to talk about their major goals being to cut taxes and the state budget. However, Louisiana has some of the lowest taxes in the country, and state revenues that help fund the budget haven’t changed that much over the years.

State general funds in 2015-16, before Edwards took office, totaled $8.7 billion. They only grew to $9.6 billion in 2018-19. That is an increase of $900 million. Fees and self generated revenues increased by $700 million over that same time period. That is a total increase of $1.6 billion, not the $7 billion increase the Republican candidates like to throw around.

Edwards inherited a $2 billion budget deficit, and that $1.6 billion increase has brought stability to a state budget that saw major reductions over the previous eight years. Thanks to budget surpluses and a 0.45 percent increase in the state sales tax, state general fund revenues for the current year increased by only $246 million to $9.9 billion.

Yes, our combined state and local sales taxes are too high. However, the state’s 4.45 percent tax is low compared to some local sales taxes that total as much as 7 percent. And those local taxes got on the books with voter approval.

Most of the money for the state budget comes from the federal government. Yes, those are our taxes as well, but we get an awful lot of federal money back to fund our budget that serves many needy citizens.

Louisiana could do more with its state general fund revenues if it weren’t for so many tax breaks, dedications and exemptions. Mark Ballard of The Advocate in a Sunday column explained the problem.

The state’s taxpayers put up that $9.9 billion we mentioned earlier. Of that money, about $4.3 billion is locked away in the state constitution for things like the $3.6 billion appropriated this year for K-12 education.

Ballard said, “Another roughly $2.7 billion of revenues is dedicated to spending only on certain items through 33 separate funds, some of them necessary but many more shoehorned in by special interests seeking to protect their corner.”

Subtract those two dedications from the $9.9 billion, and legislators are left with only about $3 billion to spend on the bulk of state services.

Abraham and Rispone want to cut taxes, which would repeat the revenue decreases experienced over the last decade that almost devastated state government. They also want budget cuts, but how much can lawmakers reduce from the $3 billion they have to spend on so many needs?

The major issue in this campaign should be budget and tax reform. However, we haven’t heard the candidates talking about doing away with some of those gigantic tax breaks, dedications and exemptions that siphon away billions of dollars needed for critical services.

That is how you can legitimately cut taxes. Bogus issues like promising to build a new bridge here won’t get the job done.

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