The three leading candidates to be Louisiana’s governor sparred in a televised debate for the first time Thursday before a boisterous crowd at the LSU Student Union.
Congressman Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone, both Republicans, went after Gov. John Bel Edwards about the tax increases he and the Republican-majority legislature implemented during his term.
“We do have the highest sales tax in the nation,” Abraham said.
Rispone accused Edwards of exaggerating the state’s financial hole early in his term to justify higher taxes. Rispone said his business experience would help him to prioritize spending in a way that would allow lawmakers to lower taxes.
Edwards said the increased tax revenue, made along with spending cuts, allowed lawmakers to stabilize state finances, increase funding for higher education after many years of cuts, and give K-12 teachers their first state-funded raise in a decade.
“I don’t agree that we should cut taxes until we know that we won’t go back to a structural deficit,” he said.
Edwards said a higher state gas tax, which has been frozen at 16 cents for three decades, should be considered, adding that it would be politically difficult. He said his administration has ensured Transportation Trust Fund dollars are spent on roads and touted the use of new funding mechanisms (such as federal GARVEE bonds) to move projects forward.
Abraham said the state transportation department is “out of control” and spends too much on administration rather than construction. He said he would be willing to support a higher gas tax but only if other taxes were cut by the same amount.
Edwards said the Medicaid expansion he implemented has saved lives and cut the state’s uninsured rate by more than half. Both Republicans blamed his administration for not doing enough to keep ineligible people off the program’s rolls, while Edwards said Louisiana is one of eight states to be recognized by the federal government for implementing best practices for Medicaid management.
Abraham went after Edwards for how his administration handled contract awards for the Medicaid management organizations, suggesting one of the current vendors was denied a new contract because the parent company donated to Republicans.
“I had nothing to do with that procurement,” Edwards said, adding that the company gives to both Republicans and Democrats.
“It’s fun to watch two politicians go after each other,” Rispone said with a smile.
Asked how he would ensure his business interests don’t conflict with his duties as governor, Rispone, co-founder of a large industrial contractor, said he would put his business in a “double-blind trust.”
One moderator said Abraham had missed 44 percent of his votes in Congress, more than any other member, and asked why he didn’t step down to run for governor if he couldn’t fully represent his constituents. Abraham said he stays in “constant contact” with constituents and his staff in Washington, D.C.
“We are doing the job we were elected to do,” he said.
Edwards touted the changes he made to the state’s industrial tax incentive program, which for the first time gave local officials a voice in whether their local property taxes would be sacrificed for the program. Now, he said, companies must create jobs to get the benefit, but the incentive program remains “alive and well.”
Rispone said Edwards threw the program “into chaos” with his changes and said he would bring stakeholders together to figure out a better way to implement the benefit. Abraham said he would reverse Edwards’ decision and return control of the program to state officials.
Both Republicans stressed their support for President Donald Trump, and said Edwards has kept Louisiana from participating in the national economic expansion.
"Our state has the slowest economy in the country," Rispone said.
Edwards said Louisiana’s economy is doing better than when he took office and said he has been able to work with the Trump administration on issues such as criminal justice reform and transportation infrastructure.
“We need someone who knows how to create jobs so our children and our grandchildren will have an opportunity to stay here,” Rispone said in closing.
“We’ve come too far,” Edwards said. “We’re not turning back now.”
“Imagine a Louisiana where we have those good, high-paying jobs,” Abraham said. “When I am governor, it won’t be a dream, it’ll be a reality.”