Three of the major candidates for governor agreed during a televised debate Wednesday that the state should re-evaluate tax credits and remove restrictions on the budget to shore up Louisiana’s fiscal future.

Democrat John Bel Edwards and Republicans Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne spent an hour on questions primarily focused on the state’s ongoing budget crisis, higher education, health care and other Louisiana-centric issues during the debate televised across the state.

And as Dardenne at one point put it, Republican candidate David Vitter, who did not join them onstage, was the “elephant not in the room” as the others frequently also took jabs at him.

Vitter spent the day in Washington, where he serves in the U.S. Senate. His campaign released to The Advocate a schedule of his obligations for this week, including a meeting of the Senate Small Business Committee that he chairs.

Vitter has committed to two televised debates in the race so far, giving his three opponents a statewide audience to debate the issues Louisiana faces without an opportunity for Vitter to weigh in personally.

The tone among the other three was generally friendly Wednesday. The differences in their positions were often subtle.

At one point, the candidates were asked to describe the qualities they admire about their rivals.

All complimented one other onstage, without mentioning Vitter.

The debate, put on by the WVLA and KTLA television stations out of Baton Rouge and Shreveport, was a stark contrast from one that New Orleans-based WDSU held last week that has been widely criticized for focusing heavily on social issues and devoting little time to state issues, like the budget.

Over the course of Wednesday’s debate, state Rep. Edwards, Public Service Commissioner Angelle and Lt. Gov. Dardenne repeatedly slammed Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration for the state’s continued budget shortfalls. Each has pledged to call a special session to address the budget crisis, if elected.

Dardenne was the only candidate who said he would be open to raising the state’s income tax, but he stressed he was taking that as part of an “open-to-all-options” strategy.

“I think we have an obligation to look at everything,” he said.

Meanwhile, Edwards and Angelle kept coming back to reprioritizing the state’s spending.

“We don’t have a revenue problem in Louisiana; we have a priority problem,” Angelle said.

Edwards also stressed the need for more “flexibility.”

“We’re going to grow the economy in a way that increases net revenue,” he added.

Each of the candidates raised concern over the state’s $7 billion tax credit offerings, saying that such programs should be re-evaluated. They also called for the state to re-examine state budget dedications.

“We have to ask ourselves, when we dedicate this money, are we dedicating to a purpose that is more important than higher education or health care or public safety?” Angelle said.

Dardenne said he would put higher education funding as his top priority.

“What we have not done in Louisiana is prioritize our budget and spending,” he said.

Edwards stressed how the state budget has been operating — forcing drastic cuts to higher ed to account for falling revenue.

“We’ve been running a shortfall every year,” Edwards said. “It’s got to be an all-aspects approach.”

All of the candidates said they would keep the state’s public-private health care partnerships, though each admitted that the program could use some tweaking.

All of them also offered their thoughts on the ballooning cost of Louisiana’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarship offering.

TOPS costs to the state have drastically swelled under repeated tuition hikes.

Dardenne, who said he supports the program, said it’s becoming “a huge financial burden on the state.”

He said he supports capping the money that goes to fund the scholarships for students who stay in Louisiana to attend college and meet certain academic benchmarks.

Edwards said he thinks the program can be reined in through stopping the repeated tuition hikes.

And Angelle said he opposes any kind of cap but thinks money can be found through cutting other unspecified low-performing programs in the state.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.