Louisiana Spotlight: Another budget crisis, more financial uncertainty likely again next year _lowres

Associated Press star reporter Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La., Monday, April 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

In a governor’s race often centered on character, Louisiana’s big business organizations see stark differences between Republican David Vitter and Democrat John Bel Edwards on policy.

The powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which rarely endorses candidates for governor, has lined up behind Vitter, along with a long list of PACs representing business interests.

Vitter, a U.S. senator, has received the support of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, the Louisiana Home Builders Association and the local chapters of Associated Builders and Contractors.

The organizations and their political action committees have money, outreach and influence they are using to try to help Vitter, who is lagging behind Edwards in the polls and in fundraising, get elected governor in Saturday’s runoff.

The groups point to tax, education and civil litigation issues as driving them to choose Vitter over Edwards, a state lawmaker. It’s a classic political clash pitting big business, supporting Vitter, against the unions and trial lawyers supporting Edwards.

Vitter’s using the endorsements to try to draw strong philosophical contrasts with Edwards, hoping to shift the focus of the Louisiana governor’s race from a referendum on Vitter’s integrity and likability to a more traditional Republican vs. Democrat contest.

“His campaign, quite frankly, is built on some sort of a myth that he’s a conservative and that we don’t differ on issues,” Vitter said of Edwards.

In a strongly conservative Deep South state like Louisiana, a partisan competition — if Vitter can get voters to see the governor’s race that way — clearly would favor Vitter.

Vitter has held news conferences to highlight the business endorsements and brings them up in debates, seeking to steer the conversation from his 2007 prostitution scandal, his high disapproval ratings and allegations that his campaign secretly recorded the Jefferson Parish sheriff and others.

In runoff debates, Vitter has described Edwards’ low scores on issues graded by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the National Federation of Independent Business. He said Edwards is in the bottom 10 percent of legislators in those rankings.

“That’s not conservative. That’s not moderate or anything of the like,” Vitter said.

Edwards responds that he has a record in the Legislature of working with members of both parties. He talks broadly of Vitter’s character and approach to governing, suggesting Vitter is divisive and would undermine the bipartisanship needed to tackle the state budget mess.

“I am a common sense person. I operate in the center of the political spectrum,” Edwards said at a recent debate. “We are going to move forward with me as governor squarely in the political center because that’s where the long-term solutions to our problems are.”

The two gubernatorial candidates do differ in areas reviewed by business organizations.

Vitter embraces charter schools and vouchers, saying the programs provide more choice to children from poor families, mirroring the position of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

Edwards says he wouldn’t seek to end the voucher program but would push to make the program that provides taxpayer-financed tuition to private schools only for students in failing public schools. He says he supports charter schools but wants local school boards to have more control over where they open.

Edwards also won’t embrace several lawsuit limitations and legal changes sought by business groups. In contrast, Vitter has repeatedly talked of wanting to change the state’s civil court system, describing the litigation climate as “the biggest problem we have for our business environment.”

On their described approach to the state’s deep financial problems, however, Edwards and Vitter don’t offer much contrast in rhetoric. Both candidates say they want to remove protections that keep parts of the budget off-limits from cuts, and both say they want to scale back Louisiana’s multibillion-dollar tax breaks.

The state’s business tax system is built on special carve-outs, exemptions, credits and rebates, and industry organizations are protective of those tax breaks. Though both candidates talk of taking some of those away, the business groups think they’ll get a more favorable ear from Vitter. And that hits their bottom line.

Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press.