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GOP candidates for governor pledge tight ties with business

By MELINDA DESLATTEMarch 28, 2019

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s Republican candidates for governor talked Thursday of creating tighter and friendlier state government relationships with business, suggesting Democratic incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards’ spending and tax policies have stifled job creation.

U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone spoke at an event hosted by the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, a luncheon that gave some attendees their first viewing of the men in campaign mode.

Abraham described Louisiana’s tax climate as “toxic” to business and pledged to lower taxes if elected. Rispone touted his background as founder of a Baton Rouge industrial contracting company, saying Louisiana needs a leader with a “business background.”

Edwards has frequently sparred with business lobbying groups since taking office in 2016 and has been criticized for cutting back tax breaks and incentive programs. But his campaign dismisses suggestions the governor has taken an antagonistic approach, pointing to thousands of jobs announced over Edwards’ tenure and a lower unemployment rate than when he took office.

TAXES AND SPENDING

Both GOP gubernatorial contenders said Louisiana taxes are too high, criticizing Edwards for the sales tax increase that he and the Republican-led Legislature enacted. Abraham and Rispone spoke broadly about financial issues, giving few specifics about what tax changes they’d seek or what areas they’d cut if the state brought in fewer dollars to the state treasury.

Abraham criticized the state health department as “top heavy” and said the transportation department spends too much money on bureaucracy. The third-term congressman described himself as “tight with a dollar” and said he’d work to curb spending, though he said he’d be willing to “look at a gas tax” as Louisiana faces a $14 billion backlog in roadwork.

Rispone said he’d seek a constitutional change requiring voters to approve any sales and income tax hikes. He said that would force state agencies to “work within their means, like we have to do.” The wealthy businessman said agencies should start with zero funding and then have to justify any money they receive.

MEDICAID EXPANSION

Abraham, a doctor from rural northeast Louisiana, heavily criticized Edwards’ decision to expand Louisiana’s Medicaid program to allow 500,000 more adults into the government-financed health insurance program.

He said fraud and abuse “is rampant,” citing an audit that said millions appeared to have been spent on people who weren’t eligible for the expansion program. He panned the type of coverage Medicaid recipients receive, saying it provides too little access to specialists and too many restrictions on prescription drugs.

“Medicaid is a second-rate insurance for a first-rate class of people,” Abraham said.

He’s previously said he wouldn’t end the Medicaid expansion, but would seek ways to offer people better insurance options.

CANDIDATE BACKGROUND

Rispone, a long-time GOP political donor running for his first elected office, distanced himself from both Edwards and Abraham by positioning himself as an outsider. He compared himself to businessmen elected in Florida, Tennessee and Arizona. Rispone has put $5 million of his own money into the race, and he suggested that sets him apart from the others running.

“We always get gridlock because one group stops it,” he said. “I’m fortunate enough where I don’t have to depend on these special interest groups. I’ve stepped up pretty big.”

EDWARDS’ RESPONSE

Edwards was invited, but didn’t attend Thursday’s luncheon, spending the day at events in New Orleans. The Edwards campaign criticized Abraham for skipping votes in Congress to campaign for governor and described Rispone as offering a budget proposal that considers “eliminating every single critical public service in Louisiana as part of a political ploy.”

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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