RUSTON, La. (AP) — As he participated in his second TV debate with his competitors in the governor's race, Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter blamed the state's financial problems Thursday on a "broken and dysfunctional" Baton Rouge, suggesting his three rivals helped create the troubles.
Vitter has positioned himself as an outsider over the years and turned that into a successful political career, and he returned to that approach in the latest debate as he sought to maintain his front-runner status among GOP contenders.
His rivals said Vitter couldn't be trusted to fix Louisiana's problems, describing him as part of a divisive Washington political culture that has been unable to effectively manage the nation's finances.
Louisiana has struggled with repeated budget shortfalls during Gov. Bobby Jindal's two terms in office. The state closed last year's books with a deficit, has seen gaps appear in this year's budget and faces a more than $700 million shortfall next year.
"Baton Rouge is broken and dysfunctional, and there are no adult leaders there taking on the big challenges," Vitter said.
Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle replied that Vitter voted multiple times to raise the nation's debt ceiling and said "a Washington, D.C., guy coming to Baton Rouge" won't help repair the financial problems.
Echoing a similar theme was Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne: "When Sen. Vitter returns to Washington next, I hope he'll start working on the $12 trillion national deficit that he helped to create."
Vitter, Angelle, Dardenne and Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards each talked of a plan to hold one or more special legislative sessions to address the state's budget woes and to restructure the state's tax system.
With a solid Democratic base of support, Edwards appears certain to secure a place in the Nov. 21 runoff. The competition is largely for the second spot, with Vitter slipping in the polls but still ahead of Angelle and Dardenne so far.
Thursday's debate at Louisiana Tech University was only Vitter's second appearance in five televised debates ahead of the Oct. 24 election. It was expected to be his last before Election Day, even though his three competitors planned to face off in two more TV events.
Though it was held on a university campus, the debate was closed to college students, the general public and members of the media who weren't panelists. Angelle, Dardenne and Edwards criticized the restrictions and said they believed Vitter was behind them.
"I absolutely believe his hand was in play today," Angelle said.
Vitter didn't speak to reporters after the debate, to respond to the allegations.
The men have repeatedly accused Vitter of limiting public access, refusing most unscripted events and seeking sterile environments where he's less likely to be confronted with questions about his 2007 prostitution scandal.
The scandal didn't come up during the debate, which focused mainly on the state's deep budget woes. All four candidates pledged to work on reversing years of cuts to Louisiana's public colleges that have stripped $700 million in state financing from campuses.
"I'm tired of funding everything to a level of mediocrity," Dardenne said.
Edwards slammed Jindal for the college cuts — and Vitter hit Angelle in a similar fashion, saying Angelle was a member of Jindal's "inner circle" when the cuts were made.
The candidates offered similar plans for chipping away at the state's $12 billion backlog of road and bridge work needs, saying they'd steer more money in the state's construction budget to transportation projects and stop using transportation trust fund dollars for items other than roadwork.
Differing answers came when the contenders were asked how they would address Louisiana's entrenched poverty. The three Republican candidates opposed an increase in the state minimum wage, while Edwards backed the idea.
"Seven dollars and a quarter an hour is not meaningful compensation in 2015," Edwards said.
Dardenne, Angelle and Vitter focused on education. Angelle said he'd raise the emphasis on skills training and put new money into early childhood education programs. Vitter said his approach to poverty would center on "faith, family, education and hard work."
Posted on Fri, October 16, 2015
by MELINDA DESLATTE, Associated Press