WESTWEGO, Louisiana — Three of the major candidates running to be Louisiana's next governor said Wednesday that while lawmakers patched together next year's budget, they didn't make the structural fixes needed to stop repeated shortfalls in the future.
Republicans Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne and Democrat John Bel Edwards said making changes to the state's tax structure and ending cycles of financial problems would be among their top priorities if elected.
Lawmakers used more than $700 million from tax and fee hikes and scaled-back tax breaks, along with hundreds of millions in piecemeal financing to stop deep cuts to public colleges and health services in the $24.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Many of the measures are temporary. Several tax bills have three-year expiration dates.
"We did some good things, but we didn't fix our structural problems," said Edwards, a state representative and leader of the House Democrats.
Dardenne, Louisiana's lieutenant governor, said the first order of business for the state's next governor "has got to be to unravel the mess."
"I commend the Legislature for what they had to do with no leadership coming from the governor's office, with no plan whatsoever. They did what they had to do to cobble together something to keep from destroying higher education," he said.
Angelle, a member of the Public Service Commission, said what lawmakers reached was a "short-term fix."
The race's front-runner, Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, had been scheduled to participate in the gubernatorial candidate forum in the New Orleans suburbs. But Vitter stayed in Washington for a defense spending vote and submitted a short video instead, outlining some of his campaign platform.
All three contenders at Wednesday's event supported a wholesale review to determine if the state's generous tax break programs are a wise use of the state's dollars. Each said he would seek to revamp Louisiana's construction budgeting process to steer more money to highway repairs and port upgrades.
And the men backed changes to the TOPS free college tuition program, saying the state needs to set payment rates for the awards that aren't tied to tuition rates on campuses. That maneuver, they said, would keep the program's costs from spiraling out of control and being unaffordable for the state.
Lawmakers passed a similar idea, but it's uncertain if Gov. Bobby Jindal will allow it to become law.
Angelle and Dardenne also suggested the state should consider raising the academic standards for students to receive TOPS awards.
On two high-profile cases awaiting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, all three candidates said they wouldn't seek to continue legal challenges if the high court legalizes same-sex marriage.
And each said he would support at least the temporary creation of a state-based health insurance exchange if the court strikes down subsidies for the 138,000 Louisiana residents who buy their insurance from the federal market created after President Barack Obama's health overhaul.
"We never have been a people that have left our families hanging," Angelle said. "I do believe it would be important for us to set up a temporary exchange to allow those folks to continue to have coverage while we are waiting on Congress to act."
On other issues:
—Dardenne and Edwards said they don't support teaching creationism in public schools, while Angelle said he does support it. All three men supported requiring sex education at high schools.
—Dardenne and Edwards said lawmakers were right in refusing to pass a religious objections bill that would have given special legal protections to people who oppose same-sex marriage. Angelle said he backed the proposal, but with changes to spell out that Louisiana wasn't supportive of discrimination.