Statewide Campaigns Obscure Real Issues

You can’t help but be amused by the bogus issues that have been injected into the statewide political campaigns for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. Most have little or nothing whatsoever to do with the two offices.

Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne is being challenged by Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, in his bid for a full four-year term. Dardenne was elected during a special election after Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor of New Orleans. Nungesser admits his explosive tirades during the BP oil spill gave him the political name recognition it takes to run for statewide office.

Secretary of State Tom Schedler got his job by virtue of being first assistant when Dardenne was secretary of state and became lieutenant governor. Schedler faces opposition from Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, who is term-limited in the lower chamber.

All four are Republicans who have seen their campaigns degenerate into name-calling, questionable accusations and character assassinations. And that is unfortunate because lost in the wrangling is the real issue of who would be the better men for the two important positions.

Everyone knows the lieutenant governor is second in the line of gubernatorial succession, but his most important role before that ever happens is promotion of state tourism. It is an industry that is a major lifeblood of this state. The secretary of state is Louisiana’s chief elections officer and that takes more than 90 percent of his time.

I should mention here that over 50 years of covering state elections has convinced me Louisiana has the best voting and reporting system in the country. Recent technological advances instituted by Dardenne and Schedler have put election information as close as an individual’s smart phone.

One of the biggest bogus issues has been the effort to mischaracterize Dardenne and Schedler by resurrecting their tax voting records. None of it has anything to do with how well they have run their elected offices. The same goes for Tucker, who is being hammered for his support of a major legislative pay raise. It has nothing to do with his fitness for secretary of state, whose salary is set by the Legislature. And since Nungesser doesn’t have a statewide record, his credibility as parish president has been under attack.

We knew it would only be a matter of time before the infamous Stelly income tax swap would surface. It was in 2002 when voters approved the swap of state sales taxes on food, utilities and prescription drugs for higher income taxes.

Dardenne and Schedler voted for the Stelly plan, and Tucker voted to repeal part of it. Two-thirds of the House and Senate approved the tax and sent it to the voters. They gave it their OK when they approved the constitutional amendment doing away with those burdensome sales taxes that hit low-income citizens hard.

Show me a public official who has never voted for a tax and the odds are the politician involved has never done much of anything else on the political scene.

Although the Stelly tax swap was one of the best tax reform measures ever enacted, the facts have been twisted since voters approved the plan in 2002. Nungesser calls it the worst tax package in the state’s history, but he has conveniently overlooked the billions of dollars in taxes levied when Edwin W. Edwards was governor.

The Stelly plan swapped over $200 million in state sales taxes on food, utilities and prescription drugs for higher income taxes. And Vic Stelly of Moss Bluff, a former state representative and sponsor of the measure, said it would be revenue neutral in the first year.

The Legislative Fiscal Office analyzed 2003 state income tax returns, the first year Stelly was in effect, and determined that 80 percent of 1.6 million filers paid fewer taxes. Income tax revenues dropped $19 million in the first year, making it better than revenue neutral. Income tax revenues were $12 million higher in the second year and additional increases were expected as personal income increased.

Meanwhile, those sales taxes that had been renewed for one or two years at a time over 16 years were off the books. The taxes were regressive and a burden for low-income families and individuals and small businesses. Unfortunately, that aspect of Stelly never gets the headlines because of the howls from the 20 percent of income taxpayers who itemize and who paid higher taxes when their incomes increased.

Those who paid higher income taxes overlooked the fact that they benefited when the inheritance tax was repealed, business tax exemptions were approved and the TOPS scholarship program was created.

The complaints about the Stelly plan are simply another smokescreen that obscures the real issue in these two important elective positions. And that is who is the best candidate for lieutenant governor and secretary of state.

Dardenne and Schedler have done a credible job so far, and no legitimate reasons have been advanced by their opponents during this campaign that says they don’t deserve to serve full four-year terms.



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