COLUMN: Where do the candidates agree?

Photo courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

For some, early October signals football, festivals and pumpkin spice season, but for those of us eagerly awaiting the arrival of Oct. 12, we’ve reached peak politics. Based on voting so far, a sizable number have tuned in early and are following the campaigns. At the close of early voting on Oct. 5, 10,918 Lafayette citizens took advantage of early voting Downtown, and another 1,193 have completed their mail-in ballots. That means 7.9% of Lafayette registered voters have already participated in what is expected to be a relatively high turnout election. 

The final week leading up to Election Day almost always raises the level of attacks. Though it may feel like the vitriol is at an all-time high — and perhaps it is — Louisiana has a rich history of political antics in the final days of campaigning. Focusing on the divisiveness is easy, but as someone who’s been following this election since the turn of the new year, I’m most surprised by the consensus. It’s cliché to say that there is more that unites than divides the candidates. But reflecting on some of those points of unity is important. 

One surprising point of agreement among all of the mayor-president candidates is the proposition to divide their own office. At the candidate forum co-hosted by One Acadiana, KATC and UL on Sept. 18, all five M-P candidates agreed that, given the split of the councils, the roles of Lafayette mayor and parish president should also be split. But splitting the office of the executive would require the home rule charter to be amended. Four out of five members in both the city and parish councils would have to support advancing that proposal to the voters. Several council candidates have also indicated their support, meaning a split executive proposal could conceivably appear on the ballot as early as November 2020 alongside a high turnout presidential election. Even if the councils and voters approved splitting the executive position, the mayor-president elected this cycle would serve the full four-year term. Separate Lafayette mayor and parish president elections would be held in 2023 to take office in 2024.

Another point of consensus among most candidates is the need to limit or eliminate spring tax elections. The secretary of state’s office sets a menu of election dates each year for local taxing authorities to place their tax renewals or new tax proposals on the ballot. Tax elections can be called by any of the parish taxing authorities — the parish and city councils, the sheriff and the school board. The consolidated council has placed numerous tax renewals on spring election dates with consistently low turnout, ranging from 2.5%-17.3% in recent years. At a cost of approximately $100,000 per election, spring elections tax an already strapped parish budget. Candidates for mayor-president, parish council and city council widely agreed that holding elections in the fall would reduce costs, increase turnout, and more generally increase the visibility and transparency of tax issues. 

Speaking of budget issues, there is overwhelming consensus that the budget needs a close look, especially the parish side of the equation. Responding to the tax-averse sentiment of the electorate, almost all candidates have claimed they want to start by looking for opportunities to save money, typically through shifting priorities. That’s a particular challenge on the parish side because so many funds are dedicated and are bound by state mandates, especially those related to costs associated with the court and jail system. 

Parish council candidates are especially keen to find rededication opportunities in the short term. During his tenure in office, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux spearheaded two such measures, one moving funds from public health to drainage and CREATE in 2017 and the proposed library fund balance transfer appearing on this weekend’s ballot. Dedicated funds require approval from the voters to be spent in new areas. Those shifts are possible, but take time, especially if candidates remain committed to placing such items on fall ballots only.

Though the candidates don’t prioritize the litter problem as urgently as infrastructure issues like storm water and potholes, most have signaled a willingness to support an anti-litter campaign as part of their administration. Among others, Nancy Marcotte and Mark Pope both noted in their answers to The Current’s Community Agenda 2019 their personal efforts at neighborhood litter pick-up as a way to promote pride in neighborhoods. Folks driving into the city, especially along University Avenue and Evangeline Thruway, are treated to a messy sight with trash lining our gateway entrances. Project Front Yard, an LCG program, has been chipping away at litter issues in recent years. Of course, no candidate is pro-litter, but to systematically combat it will take resources in a time of competing priorities. An anti-litter movement is a sensible place for candidates to gain buy-in, showcase volunteerism, build pride and protect the environment and drainage systems all at once.  

There are plenty of political and budgetary debates to be had in the coming months. Local political junkies might have been surprised that little actual debating occurred during the campaign season — deferring hard choices over substantive policy issues to the post-election governing arena. If you managed to hear what candidates themselves actually had to say, over the din of social-media lackeys and their obsessions with personalities, it all sounded rather bland and agreeable.

Once the dust settles on Oct. 13, or Nov. 17 for those in runoffs, finding ways for the new councils and mayor-president to work together is key. Remembering there is much common ground, if not exactly unanimity, may point the way ahead.