As freezing weather swept much of Louisiana this week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott ventured here to try to lure business to the Sunshine State – a trip that gave the Republican governor a chance to highlight what he views as a more business-friendly climate in Florida and also an opportunity to take a swipe at the Deep South's only Democratic governor.
Scott called it a "domestic trade mission." Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration blasted it as a thinly veiled campaign stop for Scott's future political ambitions.
Speculation has swirled in Florida that Scott, a multi-millionaire businessman who was a political novice before his successful 2010 bid for governor, might mount a challenge against Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who is seeking a fourth term. Scott cannot seek a third term as governor due to term limits.
"I'm not a candidate. I've been clear that I haven't decided what I'm going to do," Scott said Wednesday when asked about Edwards' criticism.
His business development meetings took place at HRI Properties, Search Influence, Waldemar S. Nelson & Co. and Smoothie King Franchises in New Orleans throughout the day Wednesday.
"Most of these companies are trying to compete, and higher taxes make them less competitive," Scott said.
Scott has used the trip as a chance to take aim at Edwards, Louisiana's unemployment rate and the state's fiscal challenges. He has previously led similar missions to Illinois, California and New York City.
"They're all looking at how they can compete, and when I go to other states it's the same thing," Scott said. "They are looking at taxes, regulation, workforce training. You just try to explain what you are doing versus the state that they are in."
Facing a massive budget shortfall when Edwards took office, state lawmakers temporarily raised Louisiana's sales tax in 2016. The temporary tax hike is set to expire on June 1, prompting a push for another special session to address the looming $1 billion "fiscal cliff."
Edwards and legislative leaders have not yet reached an agreement on a more permanent solution to shoring up the budget. Edwards supports efforts to bring in additional revenue to cover the gap.
"We’re happy to have him visit Louisiana and see for himself all that Gov. Edwards has done to turn this state around – record low unemployment, higher wages, historic economic development announcements and stabilized funding for higher education," Edwards' deputy chief of staff Richard Carbo said. "However, Gov. Scott should call this what it is – a fundraising stop on his yet-to-be-announced U.S. Senate campaign. Louisianans would appreciate the honesty and hope that he’ll take his political contributions and leave."
Edwards has recently touted the state's unemployment rate, which at 4.7 percent is higher than the national average but is the state's lowest percentage since 2008. He has also set out to highlight news that Virginia-based DXC Technology will open a New Orleans office that will eventually bring 2,000 tech jobs – one of the largest economic development projects in the state’s history.
Carbo said Scott is playing politics and pointed out his connections to Edwards' Republican predecessor, former Gov. Bobby Jindal. Scott and Jindal, a former chairman of the Republican Governors Association, have been close allies, with several of Jindal's former top aides eventually going on to work for Scott.
Scott said he had dinner with Jindal in Louisiana on Monday but didn't elaborate on the rest of his schedule this week, beyond the business meetings.
Scott is chairman of the New Republican federal political action committee, meant to bolster GOP efforts nationally. Former Jindal aides Melissa Sellers Stone and Taylor Teepell, who both went on to work in Scott's administration, now hold positions with the super PAC.
"I think Louisiana is a beautiful state with wonderful people," Scott said. "If they want job creation in the state, they have to do what Florida has done – reduce taxes."