SADOW: Vitter Might Outdo Jindal As Louisiana’s GOP Reformer

Sure, Sen. David Vitter is the early favorite to win Louisiana’s governorship in a bit over a year. And the reason he is – possessingstrong, take-no-prisoner conservative credentials with nods to the populist strain in the state’s political culture – is what gives him room to expand his policy options in ways that may win more votes than lose them.

In the early sweepstakes for the state’s top job, featuring Republicans Vitter and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Democrat state Rep. John Bel Edwards, observers generally think that Vitter would come out on top but not with a simple majority of votes, and that while he would win going away against Edwards in a runoff, matched with Dardenne he would retain but a slight edge. This is because Dardenne is considered able to get votes of some conservatives disaffected with Vitter for his stridency and past admitted commission of a “serious sin” over a decade ago which is thought to involve prostitution, and also should attract disproportionately Democrats.

But at his last stop on a tour of the state over the past few months, in Baton Rouge Vitter articulated some issue preferences that might cause controversy. When given the opportunity when discussing about how to find money to build roads, Vitter did not automatically rule out raising the state’s gasoline tax. He did offer that ending diversion of gas tax funds to pay for State Police operating costs, which is permitted by law but controversial because it leaves less matching funds for transportation.

Either way, it can prove difficult for Vitter. Embracing an increase in the tax would put off advocates of keeping government spending in check, but using the roughly $60 million at present being diverted would leave that much more of a spending hole for a budget that, since the beginning of the persistent economic malaise ushered in from the start of the Pres. Barack Obama Administration, increasingly has become barebones.

Perhaps more divisively, Vitter also noted that one method of generating increased revenue that could go towards transportation would be overhauling the tax system (which actually would have to wait until his second year in office, given constitutional constraints, unless he wanted to call a special session on the matter). His idea would be reducing income tax rates but also eliminating certain tax exceptions.

That idea is absolutely sound and part of the rationale behind the 2013 attempt by Gov. Bobby Jindal to alter the tax code. It would lead both to increased interest in economic production in the state through simplification and to reducing the skew that government policy can have in influencing resource allocation in less-than-optimal ways, allowing the superior allocative abilities of the market to work that will result in faster, greater economic growth.

But it also will lead to intense opposition from those quarters currently benefitting from these carve-outs, presenting Vitter with the same problem as Jindal encountered: trying to convince a large majority that would enjoy for each of its members a future sparse, indeterminate benefit to support the plan over the small minority that currently enjoys for each of its fewer members a larger, discrete known benefit.Jindal failed because he tried to dilute the impact to the minority in ways which made the change complex and easy to criticize at a surface level.

So to succeed in this (and without knowing the details, but drawing upon the general idea), Vitter would have to forgo trying to bend over backwards to minimize the negative impact it will have on some people while educating the majority on the benefits they would see. And, Vitter if elected would have one advantage over Jindal, in possessing much more political capital for the effort. Jindal, in his first session right after reelection, swung for the fences with education reform and muscled that out of the park. A year later after this exhaustive feat, he undertook perhaps the even more audacious task of tax reform and ran out of steam.

Vitter may not suffer as much from this, having earned enormous credit from conservatives, some of whom were strongly opposed to Jindal’s plan because they could not see past the short-term losses and understand the long-term gains, for almost a quarter-century of consistent and erudite conservative voting in the Legislature and Congress. He would get a greater benefit of the doubt and be able to draw upon more resources accumulated the far longer time he has spent in public office than had Jindal. Win over the conservative majority in the state, and he wins this battle in the Legislature.

Just as on the issue of Common Core, Vitter has a margin of error on policy responses to this topic precisely because of that credit. For example, have Dardenne make similar remarks and cries would come that they prove he’s not “conservative enough,” which would harm his chances among the Republican base. Certainly many of the state’s media already seem to have bought into the notion of a flexible Vitter ready to jettison conservatism at crucial junctures by seeming eager toput words into his mouth he didn’t actually say.

Of course, in the media’s case that may reflect more wishful thinking that he promotes their policy agenda than what’s more likely to be the actual situation – Vitter leveraging campaign support to take on a more conservative agenda that never has enamored him to them. One key to note in all of this is that Jindal’s policy-making long has been suspected of being shaped by ambitions for national office, which may include curbing an inclination to pursue an agenda of truly far-reaching conservatism in an effort to avoid controversy from it that could cost votes. A Gov. Vitter, because of his serious sin, has disavowed any such career path, and faces no such self-imposed constraints.

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