Gov. John Bel Edwards and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham on Thursday faced off for the first time since the Republican congressman announced his bid for the Democratic governor's job.

The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana hosted the forum as part of its annual conference. Eddie Rispone, a Republican businessman who is also running for governor, had a prior commitment and could not attend, said Robert Travis Scott, PAR's president.

The candidates were given the questions ahead of time, Scott said.

Edwards said the state is better off than it was four years ago, with GDP and personal income at an all-time high. He touted more than 130 economic development "wins" and turning a $2 billion deficit into a surplus.

Higher education funding has been stabilized, Edwards said, and Medicaid expansion is saving lives, cutting the uninsured rate in half and helping rural hospitals stay open. He said he had ended the budget "gimmickry" of the prior administration by not using one-time money for recurring expenses.

"Yes, we raised revenue," he said. "We also made sure we had cuts and savings for a balanced approach."

Edwards said state officials are using new, innovative ways to support infrastructure, such as public-private partnerships and GARVEE bonds. He said his administration ended the practice of diverting Transportation Trust Fund dollars to State Police.

During and after the debate, Edwards was asked about the possibility of raising the state's gasoline tax, which has been untouched for 30 years and is among the lowest in the nation. While Edwards did not commit one way or the other, he said a "robust conversation" about infrastructure revenue is needed.

"Here we go again," Abraham said. "More taxes."

Abraham said residents and businesses are "clawing to get out of" Louisiana, distinguishing himself from Edwards in part by calling himself a "small government guy" who will push state government to be more efficient.

“We’ve grown government far bigger [under Edwards] on the backs of taxpayers," Abraham said. “We are 49th or 50th in every category where we should be in the top tier.”

Abraham said Department of Transportation and Development salaries should be paid out of the general fund, not from gas taxes, and said he would look for new revenue sources such as drunk driving fines.

Asked about possibly raising gas taxes, he said he would exhaust other resources first. He said his policy would be "one tax up, one tax down," making it "tax neutral" for the taxpayer.

Abraham said the state's legal climate has caused a crisis of high auto insurance rates, but said Edwards, an attorney, wasn't going to do anything about it. He said he would not try to reverse Medicaid expansion, but blamed the Edwards administration for rising costs and not keeping ineligible recipients out of the program.

“If we don’t get this Medicaid expansion under control, it is going to bankrupt this state," Abraham said.

Both endorsed the need to simplify the state's tax system. Edwards said he had supported recommendations of a legislative task force that were rejected by the legislature in 2017.

"Things are better in Louisiana today on just about every single front,” Edwards said during his closing remarks. He said there is more work to be done, but "we're doing a lot of things right."

Abraham said the state needs to make a 180-degree turn.

"I am tired of government being put over people," he said. "They want government out of their lives."

Reporter

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.