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Vitter debate engagement improves voter choice

Perhaps the winner on the issues at the junior-sized Louisiana governor candidate debate was the only quality candidate who didn’t make an appearance at it. But his being a bit less circumspect about occasions to discuss these would validate that assessment.

The debate wasn’t quite a big boy encounter, not so much because college students rather than interests typically more involved and less insulated from public policy organized and delivered it but because the race favorite, Sen. David Vitter, didn’t grace it with his presence. According to his Senate website, the Republican was only a few dozen miles away yesterday inveighing on the lesser prairie chicken, but declined attendance with an unspecified prior engagement.

Naturally, Republicans Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Democrat state Rep. John Bel Edwards made disapproving noises about his semi-excused absence. Then they proceeded to underwhelm in their answers to the menu of questions.

All three candidates have stressed the importance of fiscal issues, and there Edwards really came up short. He was the only one that supported keeping the state’s generous employee retirement system basically unchanged, which now costs the state an extra $1.5 billion annually. Being as Louisiana state employees generally speaking are overcompensated relative to the private sector for jobs performing similar tasks, the least that can be done is to switch employees to a defined contribution plan, similar to those widely used in the private sector and a variant of which the state attempted to put into law a couple of years ago only to have it fall prey to a technicality.

This issue also prompted Edwards to make the most asinine comment of the night, in defense of his view: “Our employees deserve security and dignity in retirement.” Implying that individuals who want and choose to use 401(k) types of plans, who want the flexibility in employment options they offer and control of their own financial affairs, feel insecure and bring indignity upon themselves? With that, Edwards reminded the audience of his faith in big government to run people’s lives and his general arrogance in believing people cannot make good decisions without the assistance of his kind.

Edwards, joined by Dardenne, also appeared inconsistent on the fiscal issue of higher education spending. Both argued of the necessity of change to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which pays tuition for almost all high school graduates who can get admitted to a Louisiana public university and many who qualify for admittance to community colleges. A combination of supply-side pull – because it makes the costs of higher education next to nothing for many students – and increasing tuition costs has begun to impose a significant burden upon taxpayers, roughly in the quarter of a billion dollar range for this fiscal year. A small move to rein in these costs passed the Legislature this spring only to have Gov. Bobby Jindal veto it.

But they also rejected the most sensible avenue by which to manage costs of higher education in general, getting the Legislature out of the business of tuition control. By scrapping this, funding of higher education rests more on the shoulder of taxpayers than by the primary beneficiaries of that service. With politicians keeping tuition artificially low in order to seek political credit, taxpayers’ burdens increase. It makes much more sense for the users of the service to increase their contribution, especially as the ability to pay generally is present. And giving campuses more incentives to make them manage their own affairs efficiently (which would require loosening other restrictions as well) might trigger with some tuition decreases with market discipline more in play.

For his part, Angelle wisely supported stripping legislative tuition-setting authority (schools have a limited ability to raise tuition if they meet performance benchmarks) but did not want to alter TOPS. Keeping it unchanged continues to allow marginal students to waste resources, to disrupt institutional financial planning, and removes one method by which to prevent excessive tuition hikes.

Nevertheless, Angelle may have come out as the best of the bunch, courtesy of his arguing, on the issue of sex education, that any teaching of it in the public schools beyond the sole surefire means of unintended pregnancies and disease transmission, abstinence, should come only with parental consent. Dardenne and Edwards seemed to disregard the values of the family in this moral teaching by not affirming like Angelle that any such teachings beyond abstinence require a parental option out.

All did take opportunities to take shots at Vitter’s no-show yet no barbs at each other, but the dynamics of the contest make this expected. Edwards is a lock to make the runoff, so Angelle and Dardenne have to fight off Vitter to join him in it; fighting each other merely strengthens Vitter’s position. As for Edwards, with Vitter his likely runoff opponent, it’s never too early to start in on him.

By this event, Edwards still shows he leaves much to be desired in his issue preferences, but Dardenne’s answers did not make him stand out and Angelle was just marginally better with his. According to these answers, if left with these three it’s more a clothespin vote between the Republicans.

Then there’s Vitter. His campaign site doesn’t go into any real detail on these kinds of issues, although he has mentioned most of them in passing from time to time. Front-runners to a certain degree can afford to sit back to reduce the risk of tampering with a candidate image that has put them at the top. But eventually they have to give clear answers to issues of the day, where a forum of the kind held yesterday provides a good opportunity, and where participating in these also dispels any notion that the candidate wants to avoid questioning.

Vitter can get a pass on this one, but few if any other similar kinds of functions with the election now fewer than 45 days out. And in providing issue preferences in this or through other venues, he can reaffirm polling that shows his agenda most closely conforms to that of the majority of Louisiana’s electorate, giving them adequate reason to back up the polling numbers with real votes on election day.

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