Louisiana Spotlight: Where JBE sees wins, GOP attacks
BATON ROUGE — As Gov. John Bel Edwards launches his bid for a second term in office, the achievements he’ll be lauding as selling points are the same areas his challengers will use to criticize his time in office.
The Democratic governor is moving more heavily into his campaign effort, with the October election only nine months away. Edwards repeatedly says he’s proud to run on his record.
“I can stand before you and say with absolute confidence that Louisiana is on the right track and much stronger, demonstrably stronger in many areas, than we were three years ago,” he said at his end-of-2018 news conference.
Republicans who want to see Edwards ousted, however, say the governor’s performance in office gives them a lot of material to work with in their opposition ground game.
Two GOP contenders have announced they’re running against Edwards: U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, a third-term congressman from rural northeast Louisiana, and wealthy Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, a longtime Republican political donor and first-time office-seeker.
With the governor’s race really just starting, Abraham and Rispone have outlined little so far of their complaints about Edwards’ performance and their own plans for office. But other GOP officials have regularly criticized the governor since he took office, offering a roadmap of the approach to expect from the Republican candidates.
Medicaid expansion, taxes, criminal justice, and the state economy are expected to feature prominently in the election maneuvering and talking point battle that will absorb Louisiana politics for 2019:
—Edwards, a rare Democratic statewide elected official in the Deep South, moved quickly to expand Louisiana’s Medicaid program through the federal health care overhaul after he took office in 2016. Nearly 500,000 working poor and other nonelderly adults have been added to state Medicaid rolls through the expansion, which is mostly financed through federal dollars. The governor touts data showing thousands have been screened for cancer, tested for diabetes, and received treatment for medical conditions that had been previously ignored or unknown.
Republicans, including state House GOP leaders and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, point to a legislative audit released in November that suggests the health department may have spent as much as $85 million in the expansion program for people who weren’t eligible. They say the Edwards administration has done too little to keep tabs on billions of dollars in new Medicaid spending.
—After calling seven special sessions to deal with state financial troubles, Edwards highlights the stabilization of Louisiana’s operating budget with legislative passage of a seven-year sales tax renewal.
The end of piecemeal financing to pay for state programs and services has won praise from national credit rating agencies. Instead of deep budget holes, state officials are talking about ways to spend surpluses.
But conservative Republican lawmakers say those surpluses indicate the taxes pushed by Edwards and passed by their colleagues went too far. They say the governor turned too quickly to taxes to solve budget gaps and did too little to cut state spending.
—With bipartisan support, Edwards and the majority-Republican Legislature overhauled Louisiana’s criminal sentencing laws last year. The rewrite expanded probation and parole opportunities and reduced sentences, mainly for nonviolent offenders. Edwards said the changes cut Louisiana’s prison spending and ended its tenure as the nation’s highest incarcerator per capita.
Some prominent Republicans, particularly Kennedy and Attorney General Jeff Landry, have trashed the effort as jeopardizing public safety, citing rearrests of many prisoners released early. Abraham is echoing the sentiment. The GOP congressman was one of only three dozen U.S. House members to oppose similar federal legislation, saying in a statement: “We’ve seen the negative effects this kind of criminal rights activism is having in Louisiana.”
—Edwards describes Louisiana’s economic picture as positive, saying employment levels are near record-highs and touting economic development wins.
Republicans cite federal numbers showing that personal income growth slowed to among the nation’s lowest rates in the latest quarter and that Louisiana’s 5 percent unemployment rate is the third-highest among states.
Edwards’ ability to win a second term will hinge on whether Louisiana’s voters believe his perspective on the issues or the viewpoints promoted by one of his Republican opponents.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte