Republicans differ with Edwards on state direction

John Dupont

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in a debate Monday touted a fiscal surplus and growth in job creation, but his two Republican foes argued that he has led the state the wrong direction.

The sales tax, along with education reform and Medicaid expansion, highlighted the forum against Congressman Ralph Abraham and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone.

The three candidates discussed their issues during the debate presented by the Press Club of Baton Rouge at Belle of Baton Rouge Casino.

Abraham, a resident of the northeast Louisiana town of Alto, touted himself as a conservative Christian voice in the U.S. House and the only candidate endorsed by the NRA. He also promoted his opposition to Common Core and support of the death penalty.

He also boasted his work with President Trump to lower taxes.

He promised to lower taxes, incentivize business and improve infrastructure.

"Until we do that, Louisiana will be at the bottom of the barrel – and I'm tired of being last," said Abraham, 65. "We're Louisiana and we're much better than that."

Rispone, owner of a Baton Rouge construction company, also accused Gov. Edwards of failure in job creation.

He said Louisiana needs "a different type of governor," and that he can propel Louisiana to number one in jobs and opportunities.

"It starts by electing a different type of governor," said Rispone, 70. "Our children and grandchildren need a future in Louisiana."

Edwards, 53, accused his opponents of distorting his record, which includes the largest GDP in the state's history, growing at the 10th fastest rate in the nation and the fastest in the Southeast.

He also touted the $1,000 per year pay hike for Louisiana public school teachers – the first in 10 years – and the Medicaid expansion, a frequent target for Republican lawmakers.

The total of 450,000 Louisianans who gained health insurance when he became governor has saved the state over $300 million, Edwards said, while the rate of uninsured is the lowest it has ever been and lower than the national average.

The state has also gained 170 major economic development projects which equated to $41 billion in capital investment and creation of 34,000 jobs, he said.

"Those are the facts, they're stubborn," Edwards said. "My opponents yearn for the days of Bobby Jindal – Louisiana does not."

The three candidates distanced himself from the Jindal Administration, which began with a $1.5 billion surplus and ended with a $2 billion deficit.

The shortfall led to the five-cent sales tax that Gov. Edwards pushed during a special session when he took office in 2016.

Rispone called for a constitution convention to overhaul state law.

"We have to fix our constitutions so elected officials can do their jobs," he said. "What we have right now is a book of statutes and not constitutions . . . there's no reason we shouldn't be number one in the South on jobs and opportunities."

Abraham said Jindal had the classic Republican platform of less government, less taxes, and more accountability, but stopped short of criticizing the former governor.

Edwards, meanwhile, criticized his predecessor's approach to the budget process.

"The way he ran the budget was dishonest, smoke in mirrors," he said. "He raided trust funds and left me with a $2 billion deficit. It was the most dishonest, gimmicky, smoking mirror budget.

"We plundered the trust funds, spent money out of these trust funds the same eight years. The money is gone, and they cut higher education more than any other state in the nation and raised tuition more than any other state in the nation."

In the closing remarks, Rispone said his role as an outsider makes him the ideal choice for governor. The state voters need to seek a different approach to the person they elect for governor, he said.

"I'm an outsider, a businessperson, and someone who never ran for office before," he said. "We have to do something different, and it starts by electing an outsider, a conservative, someone with business skills and no special interests who is willing to go against the status quo."

Abraham said the Edwards Administration wants to take more money from the taxpayers, while he would implement cuts if elected.

He also promised more jobs and less government interference.

"His solution is taxes, taxes, taxes," Abraham said. "My solution is more freedom, less taxes and more jobs."

Edwards touted a bipartisan approach to government for the end of deficits and the job creation during the last four years.

"This happened because of bipartisanship, and the hard work that was necessary to right this ship by getting Republicans and Democrats to put their differences aside and do this together," he said. "Our best days are ahead of us. I'm bullish on our future and we've come too far to turn back. I'm not going to stand for it."