Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican challenger Ralph Abraham made spending promises to sheriffs Thursday while offering diverging tax pitches to mayors and municipal leaders, as the pair traveled to campaign forums on opposite ends of Louisiana seeking to woo local officials' support in the governor's race.
The candidates sparred on criminal justice laws, tax policy and economic development in appearances before the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association in Baton Rouge and the Louisiana Municipal Association in Monroe. Both told the sheriffs they supported providing more state dollars to local law enforcement and largely dismissed the idea of a constitutional convention.
But they offered differing images of Louisiana.
Edwards described his four-year term as stabilizing state finances, providing new investments in education and roadwork and improving employment for residents. He talked of the bipartisan budget deal that he and the majority-Republican Legislature struck last year, but didn't mention the taxes that financed the compromise and ended the budget shortfalls.
"We are out of the ditch. We are firmly on the road to a brighter future," the incumbent governor said.
Abraham brought up the taxes, however. He said tax rates are too high, and Edwards' policies are chasing jobs and businesses from Louisiana.
"This is a phenomenal state, so much promise, unique culture, more oil and gas than Texas," Abraham said. "But yet, we can't harness that, and we're still at the bottom of the barrel. That's just not acceptable."
Edwards addressed one tax policy directly, promoting at both forums the changes he made to the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, a lucrative property tax break offered to manufacturers. Edwards rewrote the rules to tie the tax breaks to jobs and to give sheriffs, school boards and other local elected officials a say in whether the tax exemptions are granted since the property taxes fund their operations.
"My opponents don't support that position," the governor told the municipal association. "They don't want you to have a seat at the table."
Business groups have objected to Edwards' changes, and Abraham has previously said he wanted to undo them. On Thursday, Abraham defended the need for the tax breaks, saying too many people are leaving the state to find jobs.
"You have to incentivize these businesses," he said.
But when questioned after the forum, Abraham stopped short of saying he'd reverse Edwards' changes. Instead, he talked of continuing some local government review of the tax breaks, but in a more streamlined fashion with fewer officials required to sign off on the exemptions.
The third major contender in the governor's race, Republican businessman Eddie Rispone, didn't attend the events, citing scheduling conflicts.
Abraham and Edwards talked to the sheriffs about increasing the daily rate they receive for housing state prisoners in their local jails and boosting the pay supplement the state provides to local law enforcement.
Abraham, however, went further in his promises.
The GOP congressman said the $1 per-day prisoner payment rate increase made by Edwards and lawmakers this year — and the $1 per-day increase planned for next year — don't go far enough. He talked of raising that by $7 to $10 per day, a proposal that would cost as much as $60 million a year. And while Edwards said he wanted to raise the pay supplement "as we have opportunities to do so," Abraham committed to a pay hike, saying: "We're going to fix that."
Abraham didn't detail how he could cut taxes as he proposes and find millions to increase spending on law enforcement. He talked of eliminating sales tax exemptions to free up cash and said "there are pots of money that nobody's talking about," without offering further explanation.
Edwards suggested Abraham was making promises he couldn't keep.
"In Louisiana, unlike Congress, you have to balance your budget every single year. You can't just balloon the deficit," Edwards said.
Edwards comes from a family with four consecutive generations of sheriffs, and he received the sheriffs' association endorsement four years ago. But Abraham said he's hopeful he could get that backing this year.