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La. governor candidates back allowing local tax hikes to improve roads, if voters approve

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LAFAYETTE, Louisiana — Louisiana's four major candidates for governor told a packed audience of local elected officials Friday that they support giving municipalities more authority to raise their own taxes for roadwork.

The three Republicans — Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and U.S. Sen David Vitter — and one Democrat, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, spoke at a Louisiana Municipal Association luncheon.

The men promised to work closely with parish, city and town governments. They said they'd back giving local governments the ability to drum up more money to patch roads, improve highways and address other transportation needs — if voters locally approve the taxes.

Angelle, a former St. Martin Parish president, talked of a need to "unshackle some of the prohibitions that we have provided or placed on local government and give you an opportunity through a vote of the people to have a bigger menu of opportunities to fix things."

Edwards and Dardenne spoke of letting local governments levy their own gas tax, but Angelle and Vitter didn't name a specific tax source.

Edwards said the municipalities need assurances the state would also maintain its current level of spending on road and bridge work so they wouldn't end up raising taxes only to get stuck with the same net level of transportation financing. Vitter said the discussions of local revenue increases may need to be done on a regional basis.

"But I'm certainly open to giving you both more authority and more revenue responsibility with an appropriate vote of the people," Vitter said.

The candidates split on a local property tax charged on business inventory.

Business organizations say the tax makes Louisiana uncompetitive with other states, so Louisiana is spending more than $500 million a year in a dollar-for-dollar tax credit to offset the local tax expense for companies.

With Louisiana facing consistent and deep budget troubles, lawmakers and others have suggested the state should consider getting rid of either the tax credit or the tax. But local school boards, sheriffs and municipalities that rely on the property tax money say the repeal could force them to shutter services to fill the gap created by the lost revenue.

Vitter and Dardenne both said they want to get rid of the inventory tax entirely. Dardenne described it as a "crazy tax." Angelle suggested there are "better ways" for communities to raise revenue, but he didn't say he'd definitely seek the tax's repeal.

All three Republicans said they would only support removing the inventory tax if they can find a source of replacement money for the local government agencies that rely on that property tax money. Vitter said the replacement money would have to be strongly protected, likely in the state constitution.

"The state should not fix its house by wrecking the city halls of the 303 municipalities across Louisiana," Angelle said.

By contrast, Edwards resisted the idea entirely, saying he opposes an inventory tax repeal.

"What substitute can possibly be offered to you that is as good as that? There is none," he said.

On another tax issue, Angelle, Dardenne and Edwards said Congress should pass a federal law requiring companies to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases, calling it an issue of fairness that involves treating online retailers the same as brick-and-mortar stores. Vitter voted against the bill in the Senate, but said he expects Congress to eventually pass such a tax collection requirement.

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