Louisiana’s two Republican candidates for governors started Monday to stake out modest differences on business tax breaks, teacher pay and the state’s Medicaid expansion program, at an event called to tout their differences from Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards on economic policy.
Still, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone stopped short of offering much policy detail when questioned about their criticism about state spending levels and recent tax hikes.
Abraham and Rispone met with business leaders and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in a Republican Governors Association event aimed at blasting Edwards’ performance in office and one of the first public events with both candidates.
But while the contenders agreed in panning Edwards, they drew some distinctions in response to questions.
After taking office, Edwards expanded Louisiana’s Medicaid program to cover 500,000 more adults, mainly the working poor, embracing a key provision of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. Both Abraham and Rispone have criticized the expansion, pointing to audits that suggest millions of dollars may have paid for people who weren’t eligible under the law.
Abraham, a doctor from rural northeast Louisiana, said he wouldn’t end the Medicaid expansion, but would seek ways to offer people better insurance options and tighten oversight of Medicaid spending.
“I want the voters to understand nobody’s going to get kicked off the rolls. But are we going to make this program better for the taxpayer and those that need the program? Absolutely, and that’s just good common sense,” Abraham said at the event hosted by the local chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors.
Rispone, a long-time political donor making his first bid for elected office, said he’d try to “freeze” the expansion program, to keep from adding new people and make sure we have a program that’s “implemented properly.”
As Edwards is asking lawmakers to approve a $1,000 teacher pay raise, Abraham agreed that teachers deserve more money, but he did not endorse a specific plan.
“We should have raised the teacher pay long, long ago,” Abraham said. He added: “We’ve just got to find a way to pay for it.”
The congressman said he’d look to “tax reform” to help cover the costs, saying he’d seek to lower taxes. While that would cut dollars from the state treasury, Abraham maintained that would help draw more economic development to the state, creating new jobs and boosting the number of taxpayers and the revenue coming into the system.
Rispone opposed across-the-board pay hikes for teachers, saying the money should be divvied up based on local needs and input.
“Just giving raises across the board is not where it needs to happen,” he said. “Superintendents want to reward based on performance and skill level and demand.”
Asked about the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, Abraham said he’d reverse Edwards’ decision to require local government buy-in on the controversial property tax breaks. Rispone didn’t say if he’d undo that, instead saying he’d sit business and local government leaders “all down in the same room, and we’re going to work out something that’s feasible for everyone.”
Both candidates suggested Edwards’ support of scaled-back business tax breaks and his regulatory approach to government have chased away economic development. Abbott said of Texas: “Part of our success is businesses having second thoughts about Louisiana.”
The Edwards campaign responded by recapping a litany of job announcements made since he took office, touting recent state surpluses and saying businesses pay a lower share of taxes in Louisiana than in Texas.
Louisiana’s gubernatorial election is Oct. 12.