(Photography by Marie Constantin)
The candidate at the front of the pack talks taxes, TOPS and transportation.
According to several polls, and judging by campaign war chests, U.S. Sen. David Vitter is the frontrunner to be Louisiana’s next governor. To some people, that’s surprising. The state’s senior senator, who has survived a sex scandal, is not known for his charisma and can be a polarizing figure.
But perhaps it’s not surprising at all. He has been running since January 2014, and over the past several years he has forged strong ties with officeholders statewide through his efforts to build a Louisiana Republican majority. He also is one of President Barack Obama’s harshest critics, although there’s plenty of competition for that description in the Bayou State.
Like the current governor, Vitter is a Rhodes scholar; the Metairie resident graduated from Harvard, Oxford and Tulane Law. He served in the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1992 to 1999 before being elected to Congress. He won his current U.S. Senate seat in 2004 and was easily re-elected in 2010.
“There’s a huge consensus in the state that people want leadership,” Vitter says. “They want us to face our big challenges head on. They’re tired of kicking the can down the road, avoiding the big issues, or playing politics with them.”
You have called Gov. Jindal’s plan to scale back the state’s inventory tax credit a “huge tax increase on thousands of employers.” You’ve proposed eliminating the inventory tax entirely while offering local governments alternative revenue from the state. Why is that a better system?
No. 1, it’s still a burden for businesses to pay it and get reimbursed, and there’s some uncertainty with the state always being able to pay it. Secondly, you have the locals valuing the property. But the state, which has to pay the bill, is not involved in the assessment at all, and that bill has been going up and up. So we need to control that so it’s not an ever-increasing cost for the state taxpayer. We could do that in two ways: a straight payment to the locals at a set rate, or potentially create some revenue opportunity that doesn’t exist now. That’s going to depend on a lot of other moving parts with spending and tax reform, so it will have to be part of a broader package. We need to broaden the base on the tax side by doing away with certain credits, exemptions and deductions.
You’ve called for a robust cost-benefit analysis of our credits and exemptions. What would that process look like, and what’s your standard for an acceptable program?
The standard would be understanding from experts the cost to the state taxpayer in foregone revenue compared to the benefit in terms of economic development and revenue associated with that. I don’t think the process has to be super-formalized, but we need to go through that analysis from experts.
Does the benefit have to exceed the cost?
I think we need to understand the numbers, but there are other benefits besides just revenue. I don’t think we can have an ironclad rule that the benefit exceeds the foregone revenue, but we certainly need to understand the numbers.
If the goal is to broaden the base and lower the rates, should that process be revenue neutral, as some conservatives would argue?
No. I would expect it to bring new revenue to address our budget crisis.
On your campaign website, you list several state consulting contracts that you believe are inappropriate. What do you see as the proper role for consultants working for state government?
We need to look at it on a case-by-case basis. It can be a good thing if you reduce the cost of state government, but very often what’s been going on is that you create these consulting contracts and state government isn’t cut, it’s just less work [for government]. That is not a good thing.
You want to free up some of the state’s dedicated spending, but you’re not talking about a constitutional convention. How would you attack the problem?
I’ve called for a focused and immediate legislative session. There are at least three reasons that is preferable to a constitutional convention. No. 1, we have to do things that are both statutory and constitutional, and you can do both in a session. No. 2, to do a constitutional convention right would take a lot of planning and groundwork, and we don’t have the time. And No. 3, there’s some possibility that a constitutional convention could be out of control and go into all sorts of things outside of this immediate problem.
And at the end of this session, there would be some proposed constitutional amendments that would have to go before the public.
Correct. Several things I’m talking about, including lifting certain budget protections, would take constitutional amendments.
Conversely, you’ve called for greater protection to the Transportation Trust Fund.
That’s the one exception to the broader rule that I would make. I think we need to rebuild citizens’ confidence in that fund. It’s been used as a piggy bank too often for unrelated things. We don’t put enough related revenue into it, such as the vehicle sales tax, where it never gets to the Transportation Trust Fund.
Would you change how the state handles its public/private charity hospitals?
I think you have to start with the expectation that they’re all works in progress, so we’re going to need to fine-tune and improve the partnerships. I was just at the medical school in Shreveport and expressed strong support for the medical center. I think we need a stronger partnership there, including one or more private partners with the ability to make capital investments. We need to go market by market and really fine-tune these partnerships.
You say you want to fix a “broken” Medicaid system. The state recently went to managed care for Medicaid recipients. What would you change?
I would not rule out, as Gov. Jindal has, the possibility of some type of waiver under the Medicaid expansion [proposed by the federal government under the Affordable Care Act], although I would have to understand how we’re going to pay the new state dollars for any expansion. And I would want a reformed system, not traditional Medicaid, so some sort of [private] coverage system. And I would not want to increase any disincentives to work. Within our present Medicaid system, I think there are improvements we can make. I’m not against a managed care model in general. I think that can be an improvement over traditional Medicaid. Particularly if we consider any expansion, we need to look at new models focused more on the market and private coverage and helping people get that coverage.
In the long term, does it make more sense to expand Medicaid and let the dollars follow the patient as a replacement for the public hospital system?
I’ve always favored that concept. But we have traditionally had these institutions to serve low-income people, and the new partnerships still have that mission.
So for now, the public/private partnerships are the path we’ll stay on?
I think that’s where we are for the foreseeable future, and I think it’s important to remind those providers that they have that mission.
Is it the state’s responsibility to try to make whole, for example, Baton Rouge General–Mid City, which says it has been harmed by the partnerships?
I just had a very good meeting there. I’m not saying it’s the state’s responsibility to cover any losses they point to, but we need to be sensitive to that because they cover an important part of the city. Certainly, their closing their emergency room is significant, and we need to react to that, at a minimum, with making sure we have transportation to move true emergency room cases to Our Lady of the Lake.
Should public colleges and universities be able to charge whatever the market will bear?
No. I think public higher education has a specific mission that involves affordability. Having said that, I do favor a lot more autonomy and flexibility for those governing higher ed, versus our present system which is political and has so many strings attached that it even requires a two-thirds vote by legislators for fee increases.
Should TOPS be capped or limited in any way?
I think we need to look at that in order to preserve TOPS. We can’t sustain that without limits, so I think we need to look at reform. I’m not ready to endorse any specific changes yet, but I’m talking to a lot of experts about that.
How would you change our ethics rules and enforcement of those rules?
I think it’s mainly about having an administration that has a zero-tolerance policy for corruption. But there certainly may be some areas where we need to change the law. Two examples: There have been a lot of valid criticisms about abusing the public records law’s deliberative process exemption for formulating policy, and I think we need to limit that and redefine that under state law. Secondly, I think the ethics administration probably needs more audit capacity, so that they catch more problems that have been in the news like double-dipping when certain people pay for some things from both official per diems and campaign accounts.
What’s your objection to the current administration’s ethics record?
Well, I’ll talk about what I will do, which is to have an executive order to stop abuse of the deliberative process exemption. It needs to be limited to real policymaking, not five levels down in the bowels of every state agency, where in some cases folks just put in an email, “By the way, this is deliberative.” PAR has done a lot of work in this regard, and I would look at some of the parameters they have suggested.
Does Louisiana need a “religious freedom” law similar to what Indiana has enacted?
I can tell you as governor I would ensure that state government takes no action to discriminate against any individuals based on the individual’s views on marriage, whatever they are, whether they are pro-gay marriage or like me believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.
But is there really a religious freedom problem in Louisiana that needs to be addressed by legislation?
I think we have a healthy respect for those freedoms in Louisiana. I can certainly tell [you that] under my administration that would be strongly protected.
What is your assessment of Gov. Jindal’s effectiveness? What grade would you give him?
I don’t think it’s my place to grade him. It’s my place to work hard and be graded, and I’m working very hard to be graded on my ideas and proposals.