GOP Louisiana governor candidates try to show differences

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FILE – In this March 18, 2019 file photo, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham speaks at a business event in Baton Rouge, La. Republican candidate for Louisiana governor Abraham has released a new TV ad that takes aim at abortion rights and the transgender community as he works to draw attention for his campaign. In the 30-second spot launched Thursday, Aug. 22, the three-term congressman looks directly into the camera to establish what he calls “the truth.”(AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte, File)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The two main Republican challengers to Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday started drawing distinctions between their campaigns, with differing opinions on how to achieve the tax and spending changes they both say they want to enact.

U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, a doctor and third-term congressman from rural northeast Louisiana, said if elected, he’d immediately call a special session to rewrite Louisiana’s tax laws and address infrastructure needs.

Businessman Eddie Rispone, a first-time candidate from Baton Rouge and regular donor to conservative politicians, said his priority would be an overhaul of the state constitution, including provisions on taxes, spending, state employee protections and education. He said too many provisions that should be in law instead were locked into the constitution, making them difficult to undo.

“We have to fix it once and for all, start over,” Rispone said.

The proposals from both men were in broad strokes.

They criticized the growth in government spending under Edwards. They objected to tax hikes passed by the Democratic governor and the majority-Republican Legislature and pledged to decrease taxes. But neither specifically described where they’d shrink spending, instead talking about cutting waste and creating efficiencies in government agencies.

“We are not using money efficiently. We are not using money wisely. I’ve looked at the budget. Woah, there is a lot of waste, fraud and abuse,” Abraham said.

Each GOP candidate is trying to position himself as the most viable contender in the Oct. 12 election to defeat Edwards. But they have struggled to spell out sharp areas of policy difference, a situation they sought to remedy at the evening forum held by a regional Republican women’s organization.

Abraham noted that he supports the death penalty; Rispone opposes capital punishment, citing his Catholic faith. Rispone supported business-backed changes to criminal sentencing laws that Edwards also championed, but Rispone said they need to be tweaked. Abraham suggested he wanted to reverse some of those changes entirely, saying those convicted of violent crimes are “not going to get out early under my administration.”

Rispone focused on his experience building his business and creating jobs, fashioning himself as “an outsider” and businessman similar to President Donald Trump.

“It’s time to do something different,” Rispone said. “The best way to start that is (to) elect a different kind of governor.”

Earlier Thursday, Abraham stood outside the state health department building to pan Edwards’ expansion of Louisiana’s Medicaid program, which added nearly a half-million people to the taxpayer-financed health insurance program.

Edwards has touted the program as the signature achievement of his term in office, saying it has improved health care for thousands of people.

Abraham said the Edwards administration has mismanaged the expansion, doing too little to make sure the people getting the coverage are eligible for it. He called the health department “one of the most ineffective and poorly run government agencies in Louisiana.”

Rispone offered similar criticism Thursday night, but neither Republican candidate is proposing to roll back the Medicaid expansion. Abraham said he’d bring in more auditors and use more tax data to double-check eligibility. Rispone said he’d “freeze” enrollment at current levels until he could assure wasteful spending is eliminated. Edwards has argued Medicaid computer system upgrades and quarterly wage checks have addressed Republican criticisms.

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