La. governor's candidate Campbell bets campaign on oil tax idea -
One in a series of profiles of the candidates in the Oct. 20 governor's race
Associated Press Writer
LAKE CHARLES, La. (AP) _ In his run to become Louisiana's next governor, Foster Campbell is gambling.
The Bossier Parish Democrat has pegged his entire campaign to a single idea, a plan that he says will solve the state's education, coastal erosion and highway problems. He has a chance to be governor only if voters respond to that message _ one that Campbell has been touting, unsuccessfully, for over a decade.
Campbell calls it ``the greatest thing we could do for the state of Louisiana.''
In essence, Campbell wants to overhaul the state's tax system: eliminate corporate and income taxes and replace them with a new tax on energy companies that refine their petroleum in Louisiana.
The idea has long-standing critics on several fronts. Some warn that Campbell's plan would drive energy businesses _ and their jobs _ to other states. Some say the idea has been tried and been ruled unconstitutional. Others say it simply won't work, and voters will reject it.
``Most people believe that Louisiana has a lot of problems and there's no silver bullet that's going to solve all of them. This oversimplified solution to fix all the problems _ most people won't buy into it,'' said John Sutherlin, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana-Monroe.
Campbell has no patience for such critics. He dismisses them, saying voters will relish the idea of transforming Louisiana into a state without income taxes, a state that taps the oil industry's profits for highway projects, improved public education and the fight against coastal erosion.
``We're going to give that money back to you _ the people,'' he tells a roomful of Lake Charles supporters. ``We're going to fix our roads and repair our coast.''
References to ``the people'' play a prominent role in Campbell's campaign speeches; it's a habit he's developed over three decades in elected office. His brand of populism, his attacks on profit-hungry corporate America, have been compared to Huey Long's, and it's a comparison he doesn't entirely reject.
``I think all politicians ought to be populists,'' he says. ``'Populist' means you represent the people.''
Campbell, 60, started his political career by winning a state Senate seat in 1976, where he remained for 27 years. Fellow senators remember him as clever, brash, hotheaded and relentless, known for his podium-pounding, red-faced oratory.
``He was like a bulldog, coming straight at you,'' says state Sen. Tom Schedler, R-Mandeville. ``But as dynamic as he was as a legislator, he alienated many people, and consequently that caused him some political problems.''
Campbell's long political career might have turned out differently, if not for an auto accident in 1988.
He ran a strong campaign that year for Congress, against Jim McCrery, who was then a little-known Republican lawyer and former congressional staffer. A month before their runoff election, Campbell crashed while driving illegally on an unfinished stretch of Interstate 49. Campbell lost an eye in the wreck, then lost the election by 1 percentage point.
Campbell resumed his work in the state Senate until he was elected in 2002 to his current position, representing north Louisiana on the Public Service Commission, the state's utility regulatory body.
At PSC meetings, he often takes the microphone to complain about the high profits of electric and telephone companies. He is a frequent ``No'' vote when utilities ask permission to raise their rates.
As a candidate for governor, he's focused on the oil tax plan that he's been touting since the 1990s. Others have pitched similar plans, with no success, including former Govs. Edwin Edwards and Dave Treen, a Democrat and a Republican.
Campbell says eliminating the state's income tax would be something like giving all Louisiana taxpayers a raise _ $3.1 billion in all, a cash boom that would boost consumer spending and the state's economy.
He says creating a new, 6 percent processing tax on foreign and offshore oil would produce a net gain of $1.7 billion for the state annually. Campbell would use $1 billion on projects to prevent erosion of the coastline, the rest on highway projects and education.
When he pushed the oil tax in the '90s, those bills won little support _ failures that Campbell says stem from the overwhelming power of oil company lobbyists in the halls of the state Capitol. He says the main criticism of his plan, that energy companies will bolt to other states, is groundless.
``They're not going anywhere,'' he says. ``We're the only state that wants them. They can't go to California, because California doesn't want them.''
According to the polls, Campbell's idea hasn't attracted much voter support so far. A Southern Media & Opinion Research poll last month showed U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-Kenner, had over 60 percent support, far ahead of the other three major candidates. Campbell polled third, with over 4 percent.
Also running far behind Jindal in the polls are Democrat Walter Boasso, a state senator from St. Bernard Parish, and John Georges, an independent from New Orleans. Both Boasso and Georges are wealthy businessmen spending millions of their own money on statewide television and radio ads.
Campbell, a cattleman and owner of insurance firms, doesn't have millions and has been lagging Jindal significantly in his fund-raising efforts. But he recently launched statewide TV ads that show him riding a horse, as a narrator explains the basics of his oil tax plan.
Some political observers have speculated that Jindal might be able to win the election outright in October, without a November runoff. Jindal, however, lowered those expectations this week when he told supporters he's expecting to be in a runoff.
Campbell tells supporters that his goal now is to be Jindal's opponent in November.
``My job,'' Campbell says, ``is to get in there with Bobby Jindal in the runoff.''
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