Gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone says he wants to dramatically revamp Louisiana’s tax structure, spending practices and education system, but he refuses to explain how. Instead, Rispone says he’ll hold a constitutional convention and ask everyone to make sound decisions, just as he’s done in business.
U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham has provided some clear answers. But he’s also prompted questions of whether he is engaging in what George H.W. Bush once called “voodoo economics” by promising to cut taxes and spend more on education and roads while refusing to specify what government programs he would curtail. Instead, he relies on the old standard of pledging to cut “waste, fraud and abuse.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a 53-year-old Democrat, has offered a thin agenda if he is re-elected. He says he will push for another teacher pay raise and more money for early childhood education. And he talks about “protecting” the changes made during the past four years that have balanced the state’s budget, expanded health care to the uninsured, made it easier for some non-violent offenders to win early release and increased money for all forms of public education.
Even though Louisiana ranks at or near the bottom of nearly every state-by-state rankings, none of the three major candidates for governor has outlined a bold plan to yank the state forward.
Each candidate appears to believe that laying out a specific platform would alienate voters on various issues but wouldn’t prevent him from claiming a mandate once elected.
The timidity of the three campaigners stands in stark contrast to the audaciousness of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, who has won support among Democratic voters because she talks constantly about wanting “big structural change” and has offered plan after plan to achieve it.
To be sure, past gubernatorial candidates have pledged far-reaching policies.
In 1987, Buddy Roemer said he would stamp out the culture of corruption that surrounded then-Gov. Edwin Edwards – Roemer called it “slaying the dragon” – and he did once elected.
In 1991, Edwards promised to build a huge casino in New Orleans, and he did.
In 1995, Mike Foster said he would make Louisiana more business friendly by making it harder for trial attorneys to file lawsuits, and he did.
In 2003, Kathleen Blanco pledged to bring teacher pay to the Southern average, and she did.
In 2007, Bobby Jindal said he would clean up politics by changing the state’s ethics laws and would expand vouchers statewide for children of poor families – and he did both.
In 2015, John Bel Edwards said he would expand Medicaid to the working poor and close the state’s budget deficit – and he did both.
Rispone, 70, a Republican businessman, has never sought office before but has donated about $1 million to Republican candidates and conservative causes.
He is offering a sweeping proposal in calling for a constitutional convention to rewrite the current constitution, which was approved by voters in 1974 after elected delegates spent months drafting it. Exactly what changes he wants to enact, Rispone won’t say – not when qualified to get on the ballot, not at the Press Club of Baton Rouge forum on Sept. 23, not in an interview with three reporters afterward and not at the Sept. 26 gubernatorial debate in Lafayette sponsored by Louisiana Public Broadcasting and the Council for a Better Louisiana.
“The day after I’m elected, I’m going to work,” Rispone said when asked at the Press Club forum to name three major policy changes he wants to enact. “I’m going to contact all the oil and gas people and manufacturers and say, ‘Come back to Louisiana. Stay here. We’re going to work with you.’ Then I’m going to let all these parishes know that we’re ready to go to work. But the other thing is I’m going to go out and recruit good talented people. That’s what business people do.”
Rispone also cited the need for a constitutional convention “to turn this ship around. We need some help there. It’s not going to be playing around the edges like we’ve done with career politicians over the decades.”
Three reporters afterward asked Rispone which taxes he would cut, which programs he would slice to reduce government spending and which articles of the constitution he would like to remove or change.
“The whole thing has to be looked at,” Rispone replied. “We have a book of statutes. There are four articles that we all know that have to be addressed – obviously revenues and taxation, education, local government and elected officials and state workers.”
When one reporter pressed for specifics, Rispone said it was a “gotcha” question. “My policies are transparency, making sure that citizens are getting efficient, effective services,” Rispone then replied.
Abraham, 65, was a doctor in northeast Louisiana until his 2014 election to the U.S. House as a Republican. At the Press Club forum, Abraham also was asked for his major policy prescriptions.
He said he would reverse the changes made by Edwards to the state’s generous Industrial Tax Exemption Program. With his changes, local government officials can reject property tax exemptions that a state board traditionally authorized with no say by locals. Edwards has defended his overhaul of the program, while Rispone has not given clear answers but seems to agree with Abraham.
As for his other policy priorities, Abraham told the audience at the Press Club forum: “We will revamp the waste, fraud and abuse in our Medicaid expansion. On Day One, I’ll call a special session to address infrastructure, taxes and budget reform.”
Abraham has not explained what changes he wants to make to reduce the state’s $14 billion infrastructure backlog, other than promising to reorganize the state Department of Transportation. He hasn’t spelled out what he means by “budget reform.”
Abraham did say he wants to eliminate the provision that allows Louisiana taxpayers to deduct their federal tax payments on their state tax returns. He would offset the extra revenue generated by the change by reducing tax rates, he said. Edwards expressed the same view but failed to win legislative approval for the change. Rispone did not take a position at the forum, saying only, “We have to do something different with taxing the people.”
Meeting with The Advocate editorial board on Thursday, Abraham said he wants to eliminate the state franchise tax and the inventory tax and expand business tax breaks. Businesses will respond with a wave of investments that generate enough tax revenue to offset the cost of the tax cuts, he said. As evidence of this, he pointed to the tax cuts approved by Congress and President Donald Trump in 2017 that most economists say have helped fuel the country’s economic growth but have also caused the federal budget deficit to balloon.
Abraham and Rispone chastise the changes passed by a bipartisan coalition of legislators and Edwards that have expanded probation eligibility and allowed some non-offenders to win an early release. The two Republicans have not challenged the policy itself but say Edwards’ implementation of it has led to the release of dangerous criminals who have committed more crimes. Edwards says that claim is false and points to declines in murders in major cities across the state.
At the Louisiana Public Broadcasting gubernatorial debate, Greg Hilburn, the Louisiana politics reporter for the USA Today Network, asked the candidates to identify the programs they would cut to offset the increases in spending on education that they are touting.
“The problem is that in Louisiana we don’t have a revenue problem, Greg,” Abraham said. “We do have a spending problem. The way to get that back is to bring jobs in. You create the jobs.”
More people working certainly means the government collects more taxes and spends less on social programs. But even if new jobs were to materialize, the treasury wouldn’t have an improved balance sheet for at least a year. What would Abraham do in the meantime? He didn’t say.
Edwards has identified only two specific priorities for a second term. One is enacting another teacher pay raise with the goal of having Louisiana teachers earn the Southern pay average.
The governor has also said he wants to boost early childhood education spending again, after a $20 million increase this year.
“The next four years, we’re going to maintain the momentum that we have,” he added at the Louisiana Public Broadcasting forum. “We’re going to make sure that Louisiana doesn’t go deep into the ditch again. So we can continue to invest in our critical priorities.”
To Hilburn’s question, Rispone responded again with his unspecific talking points: “We keep electing politicians to be our governor. It’s time to get a business person, an outsider, someone who has some serious business skills. This is a $30 billion operation, folks. We need a CEO.”
A frustrated Hilburn felt compelled to remark, “With all due respect … you all very much sounded like politicians then. All of you still said that you can grow some government programs, which are laudable programs, and none of you have said where you would cut, and some (Abraham and Rispone) said you would reduce revenue. It just doesn’t seem to make sense.”
Capital News Bureau reporter Sam Karlin contributed to this article.