BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — With Louisiana's congressional races settled, elections shift to local concerns in the new year.
Talk of immigration and President Barack Obama will give way to discussion of road congestion, tax policy and the state's perpetual budget woes as voters select Louisiana's next governor, statewide elected officials and state legislators.
Contenders in the governor's race seeking to draw distinctions from Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose national political ambitions have dragged down his approval ratings at home, will be trying to show their focus is squarely on Louisiana, not Washington.
Jindal is term-limited and seemingly focused on a potential 2016 presidential campaign, so people will be looking to those vying to be the state's next governor to outline a vision for the future. Four men have announced so far: Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards and Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter.
And while taking nothing away from the importance of the issues in Washington, Louisiana has a lengthy list of its own problems to tackle.
Since 2008, the state has been careening from one budget crisis to the next, with Jindal and lawmakers using short-term fixes to patch their way through each year without addressing the structural imbalance of the budget.
The state does not generate enough money with its current revenue sources to pay for the services and programs it maintains — without dredging up piecemeal financing from legal settlements, property sales and other sources that don't appear year after year.
To stop the consistent cycles of shortfalls and budget gaps, the next governor and lawmakers might be forced to make tough decisions: Do they want to cut government to match the state's existing annual income? Or do they want to find new ways to generate more money for state coffers, either through tax hikes, fee increases or elimination of tax breaks?
Taxes are at the forefront of talk about how to better balance the state's budget, with a study group looking at the state's multibillion-dollar list of tax credits, rebates and exemptions and what they generate in return.
The idea is that Louisiana's next governor and future legislators may want to scale back the giveaways or reshuffle the tax structure. The long-range conversation has been bubbling at the state Capitol for a few years, but Jindal's rigidity in his view of tax issues has stalled the real debate until he's headed out the door.
For people sitting in traffic on Louisiana's highways, dodging potholes or watching a road slowly disintegrate into gravel, they're likely wondering whether state officials consider transportation issues a priority. That's another financial conundrum.
The state has a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge work and no identifiable pools of money to make a sizable dent in the list. A task force is trying to come up with ideas, but any significant effort to chip away at the backlog likely will be punted to future elected officials and, thus, become an issue on the campaign trail.
Health care debates likely will skew a bit to the national side, simply because the main source of continuing contention in Louisiana, as in many other states, is whether to expand the Medicaid program as allowed under Obama's health care law.
The expansion would extend taxpayer-funded coverage to thousands of the state's working poor with the federal government picking up most of the tab. But eventually, the state will have to pay for a share of the cost. And the entire program is caught up in a partisan, national debate about whether the federal law was a good idea or a horrible catastrophe.
On the education front, there are continuing fights over the Common Core standards, teacher evaluations, school testing policies, charter school funding and special education teaching. At the college level, there are disputes over budget cuts, tuition increases and state aid to students.
In other words, candidates and voters should have a lot of Louisiana issues to haggle over in 2015, without spending much time on the political debates of Washington.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press.
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Posted on Tue, December 30, 2014
by Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press