3 Governor Candidates

John Bel Edwards (left), Eddie Rispone (middle) and Ralph Abraham (right)

To attack Louisiana's entrenched problems, three government watchdog groups are urging political candidates to think big and get specific. They'll have trouble finding that broad vision and road map for getting there from contenders in the governor's race.

The nonpartisan groups — the Committee of 100, the Council for A Better Louisiana and the Public Affairs Research Council — launched a campaign called RESET Louisiana's Future, promoting recommendations on education, infrastructure, public safety and taxes.

The organizations say they want to move away from a decadelong conversation about how to fill budget gaps toward big picture goals about improving a state with poor performance on most major quality of life indicators. And they are pushing for detailed proposals for achieving those goals.

"While Louisiana has made progress in recent years, we know we can do better. We're tired of being 50th, and what we're asking candidates for governor and the Legislature to do is tell us their plans to help move Louisiana off the bottom," Barry Erwin, head of the Council for A Better Louisiana, wrote recently.

But that sort of detailed policy talk isn't necessarily happening among the major gubernatorial candidates on the Oct. 12 ballot.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, the Deep South's only Democratic governor, offers more of a stay-the-course pitch, rather than the sort of sweeping vision for the state that RESET's advocating.

"You will see a continued emphasis in the second term of the things that we've been able to accomplish in the first," the incumbent governor said when he registered for his reelection bid.

Edwards sees the race as a referendum on his performance since 2016 and promises to keep the Medicaid expansion, criminal justice overhaul and budget stability he considers the hallmarks of his tenure. He says he'll boost spending in education, which he says will lead to "the opportunity and prosperity that we want."

Questions of how to lessen a multibillion-dollar backlog in road and bridge work or whether Edwards will take another stab at rewriting a Louisiana tax structure that is near-universally disparaged remain unanswered.

On the other side of the political divide, Republican contenders Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone can describe the many ways they believe Edwards has done a poor job as Louisiana's top leader. But they grow vague when pushed for specificity about how they'd accomplish change.

Abraham, a third-term congressman and doctor from rural northeast Louisiana, suggests Edwards has mismanaged Medicaid, transportation financing and tax policy. But he doesn't get into the weeds of how to make improvements — only broadly talking about tackling "waste, fraud and abuse."

He said if elected, he'd immediately call a special session to rewrite Louisiana's tax laws, cut taxes and address infrastructure needs. But it's unclear how he'd both cut taxes and boost spending on road and bridge work. Asked at a GOP candidate forum about how he'd improve public K-12 education, Abraham described a philosophy of "letting teachers teach" and spending education dollars more "wisely."

On Medicaid, he gets slightly more specific, saying he wants more auditors involved and more tax data used to make sure the people enrolled in the expansion program are eligible. However, if he successfully cuts spending in that program, Abraham couldn't shift the dollars to other parts of state government under the law.

Rispone, a Baton Rouge businessman who is largely self-financing his campaign, also pans Edwards' performance across the board. The centerpiece of Rispone's response involves a constitutional convention to rewrite the state's governing document, including provisions on taxes, spending, state employee protections and education.

He said too many items that should be in law instead were locked into the constitution, making them difficult to undo and limiting budget flexibility. Rispone said Louisiana needs to "get a real constitution that we can work with."

But he sidesteps questions about what precisely he wants to strip out of the constitution and rewrite, instead saying simply that the state needs to "fix it once and for all, start over."

Time is dwindling for candidates to offer more details, with only five weeks until the election and three weeks until early voting begins.

Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000.