La. gubernatorial candidates debate at LSU

BATON ROUGE — Three candidates for governor clashed over taxes and Medicaid in their first debate Thursday night but largely agreed on abortion restrictions, gun policies, the dangers of e-cigarettes and the value of the TOPS scholarship program.

The debate, which took place at LSU, featured Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and his Republican opponents, businessman Eddie Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham.

One of the most contentious sequences centered on Louisiana’s shift from a budget deficit to a budget surplus since Edwards was elected in 2015 and whether the candidates would now cut taxes.

Edwards pointed to the state’s investment in education, including a recent pay raise for K-12 teachers and an end to the cuts in college budgets that were common under his predecessor, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.

“What we don’t want to do is go back to cutting higher education,” Edwards said.

Abraham said he would “absolutely” cut taxes if he wins because Louisiana has one of the highest sales tax rates in the country. Rispone also said he would cut taxes because he believes Louisiana has a spending problem.

Candidates were then asked if they would support allowing local governments to decide whether to give tax breaks to corporations to create jobs.

Edwards noted that smaller municipalities within the state needed seats at the table. Abraham attacked Edwards, claiming his policies caused small companies to leave Louisiana.

Polls show that Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, is leading the race, while Abraham and Rispone are competing to get in a runoff with him. Rispone recently attacked Abraham in television ads. But during the debate, both focused on their differences with Edwards rather than with one other.

Edwards has cited the addition of more than 450,000 working people to the state’s Medicaid health insurance rolls – a program mostly paid for by the federal government – as one of his biggest achievements.