BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - The three major candidates for governor of Louisiana sparred Monday, Sept. 23 over taxes, criminal justice reform, and lawsuits at a forum hosted by the Baton Rouge Press Club.
A question about coastal restoration sparked the first of many spats. U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham said he wanted to give the oil and gas industry a bigger role in restoration, lobbying against lawsuits some parishes have filed against industry giants for their alleged role in the disappearance of Louisiana’s coastline.
“I want to stop these legacy lawsuits,” Abraham said. “I think they’re frivolous against our oil and gas industry... I’ve talked to most of them, not all of them. They want to be at the table.”
“I’ve not filed a single lawsuit against [oil and gas]. Congressman Abraham has," Governor John Bel Edwards retorted, holding up a copy of the suit. “He’s filed it for damage to his property caused by oil and gas interests.”
Eddie Rispone later joined the attack Abraham brushed off. The congressman argued he filed the suit against a subcontractor for laying pipeline on his farm and the two parties settled out of court.
Edwards defended his changes to the Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP), which give local sheriffs, school boards, and governments some say in whether they forgive property taxes in exchange for business investment.
Rispone and Abraham each said they would reverse the policy, leaving ITEP exemptions entirely up to the state.
“Local government should have local control of their local environments,” Abraham said. “But having control of ITEP specifically? You see what it’s done. It’s driven large companies out of the state, and they’re not coming back.”
Rispone criticized Abraham for talking “out of both sides" of his mouth by making an exception to his local control platform for ITEP.
Each of the candidates said they would prioritize early childhood education, though Abraham accused Edwards of playing politics with pre-k.
“This governor says it’s a priority,” Abraham said. “But it’s only in an election year that this governor came out with a plan and put a little money to that.”
“It’s only in Congress where you can actually spend money you don’t have,” Edwards said. “Until we turned the economy around and started running surpluses, there were not investments to be made in early childhood.”
Abraham said he “generally voted against anything that raises our debt" and called the deficit an “unsustainable” matter of “national security.” He later touted voting for President Donald Trump’s tax cut measure, which is projected to increase the federal deficit by more than $1 trillion.
Abraham and Edwards each said they would support decoupling state and federal taxes by eliminating the state tax exemption for federal income taxes paid. Rispone did not directly answer the question.
The Republicans criticized Edwards for raising taxes to fill a massive budget hole he inherited. Rispone said he would accomplish tax reform with a constitutional convention, and Abraham said he’d call a special session on his first day in office to address “infrastructure, taxes, and budget reform.”
The three candidates meet for a televised debate on Thursday, Sept. 26. Election day is Saturday, Oct. 12.