If Louisiana had closed primaries, last week’s gathering of Republican gubernatorial candidates would probably have unfolded differently. And the setting of the event, a luncheon hosted by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, would have ensured it.
LABI, of course, is the state’s dominant big-business lobby and a force in conservative politics. A packed meeting of its members, like the one Thursday in Baton Rouge, would be the ideal place for candidates courting only Republican voters to endorse party orthodoxy.
Yet amid all the vague GOP talking points — there were lots of those, and precious few actual policy proposals — were noticeable moments when they didn’t.
Even Jeff Landry, the state GOP-endorsed cultural warrior attorney general who’s been waging battle lately against local librarians, made a detour to the center. He noted during his individual Q&A with LABI president Stephen Waguespack that during his brief time in Congress, he had the most bipartisan voting record of Louisiana’s delegation. Not exactly what we’re used to hearing from this guy.
State Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, declined to embrace choice as a go-to fix for what ails Louisiana’s schools. Asked by Waguespack about Educational Savings Accounts, which would give parents public money to spend on private school and other expenses, Nelson said they were fine. But he quickly steered the conversation to public schools, where he predicted that “95%” of kids would stay even if their parents had ESAs.
State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, appeared to back away from one of LABI’s favorite fights. Waguespack all but invited her to bash reforms by Gov. John Bel Edwards to industrial tax exemptions, long given away by a state board to industry; Edwards made just 80%, not 100%, of taxes forgivable, and gave local entities the right of refusal. Hewitt spoke up for local governments that need “the tools to be successful.”
John Schroder, the state treasurer, also declined to amplify LABI’s outrage over the program’s current state. He said he’s spoken to companies looking to invest and been told their concerns often just stem from “miscommunication.”
The conversation about reducing the tax burden — specifically about that old standby proposal, eliminating the state income tax — was also steeped in equivocation.
Nelson has made ending the income tax a centerpiece of his campaign, the better to compete for residents and jobs, and acknowledged that doing so would shift the burden to property taxes — a politically unappetizing idea as Louisiana homeowners are struggling with rapidly rising insurance rates. At least he’s willing to say who'd pay more if some pay less.
Others chimed in, but their hearts didn’t seem in it.
Schroder called eliminating state income tax “something that we have to do,” but cautioned that when Tennessee did so it leaned more on sales taxes. Louisiana’s are already high, he noted.
Landry said that eliminating the income tax is not even a question and asserted that all other Southern states don’t have one or are phasing theirs out — and invited the press to fact-check him.
OK, here goes: Actually, every Southern state but Florida, Texas and Tennessee has an income tax, according to the Tax Foundation, and of those that do, Louisiana’s top marginal rate of 4.25% is the lowest. The highest is in South Carolina, whose business climate Landry had cited minutes earlier as aspirational.
Clearly, he has not given the idea a lot of thought.
So what does this all have to do with the state’s primary system?
Well, this: To emerge from the crowd and compete with independent Hunter Lundy, whom LABI didn’t invite, and Democrat Shawn Wilson, who is expected to announce his candidacy soon, and any other Republicans who may jump in (we're still waiting, Garret Graves), these Republicans need to try to win enough support to emerge from the pack.
And while there are plenty of primary votes on the right, there are also a whole lot in the center and on the left — certainly enough to help one candidate edge into a runoff spot. That creates an incentive for all of them to appeal to a wide variety of voters, not just those in their typical ideological lane.
And as we saw last week, it also could lead to an actual, productive, informative debate about the state’s priorities. That is, if and when more of the candidates are willing to be specific.