As the House of Representatives District 66 race heads to a runoff election Nov. 21, each Republican candidate is making a case for why he is better qualified to deal with the budget problems facing the Legislature in the spring.
Darrell Ourso, the incumbent and a financial adviser, highlights his experience in government after serving one year in the House and nine years as a Metro councilman in Baton Rouge.
“It makes me better suited to work through the process,” he said.
District 66 includes parts of the southern portion of East Baton Rouge Parish.
Ourso won his seat in the House in a special election in 2014 after Hunter Green left to take a position as an East Baton Rouge Parish family court judge.
Reforming the budget process, Ourso said, means the Legislature must look at all of the money that’s dedicated to specific programs or projects and find a way to free some of it up, which would give legislators more discretion on how it’s spent, including for things like higher education.
Challenging Ourso for the seat is Rick Edmonds, vice president of Louisiana Family Forum and an outreach pastor of Bethany Church. Edmonds said it appears there is a void of leadership in the state Legislature and he would like to bring some vision back to the budget process.
“We’re going to have to redo our budget process and redo our tax process,” he said.
The tax code needs to be simpler and “flatter,” meaning more of a constant rate across all income levels, he said.
Ourso said reworking the budget process in the face of another projected shortfall is essential if key areas like higher education, health care and transportation are going to receive adequate funding. During the 2015 session, the state reduced tax credits to some entities, in part, to be able to fund some of those needs.
“This is the first time in seven years higher education received increased funding from the general fund,” Ourso said. “We felt we needed to provide additional revenue.”
However, instead of using one-time money sources like the rainy day fund to plug holes in the budget, he said it’s time to look at the underlying problems within the budget process.
“It has to be reviewed across the board,” Ourso said.
Tax credits now given out to businesses and industries need to be looked at to see how effective each has been and whether they are still needed, he said. Dedicated funding in the state also needs to be examined since it ties up so much of the budget, he said, leaving health care and higher education on the chopping block whenever there is a shortfall.
As far as tax credits, if they’re working, they need to stay in place but that may not be the case for all the tax credits currently allowed, Ourso said.
Savings can also be found by making sure programs are running efficiently, Ourso said. For example, funding for higher education is essential but he is concerned there are duplications of programs across the state. More specialization of degrees offered at universities could help save money, improve education and create a more efficient system, he said.
At the district level, transportation is a key issue with traffic congestion in the area. Some solutions would include widening Interstate 10 from Washington Street to College Drive, and from Highland Road through Ascension Parish to three lanes, Ourso said.
“Everyone recognizes we have to increase the funding,” Ourso said.
He said money could be raised by creating toll roads and raising the gasoline tax, which hasn’t been increased since 1993.
Edmonds, vice president of Louisiana Family Forum, agreed that legislators have to get control of the state budget that faced more than a billion dollar shortfall last year and likely will have another shortfall again.
When faced with a shortfall, it appears that the Legislature has just been looking at how to generate more money instead of looking at how the state is spending money, Edmonds said.
“This is going to take multiple years of budget restructuring,” Edmonds said. “It won’t always be popular, but it needs to be done to find money to build roads, schools and other necessities.”
Edmonds said that getting business professionals involved in the discussions would help simplify the tax code and make it “flatter” for everyone.
“One of the things for business is it eliminates confusion,” Edmonds said.
Even if tax reform means tax credits would go away from some businesses, there’s a possibility that they could have a better situation under the new tax system than they currently have with a tax credit, he said.
“I’m assuming that once everyone sees what’s on the table they’d be in favor of something more simple,” Edmonds said, referring to a “flatter tax”.
“We must have a good working relationship with our businesses,” he added.
Legislators also should address merging several management boards that currently represent higher education in the state. By combining these boards, Edmonds said, there would be a unified system for governance and for funding instead of the current method where different higher education boards come to the Legislature seeking money.
At the top of that priority list, he said, would be LSU because it’s the state’s flagship university.
“It doesn’t mean the other universities aren’t important,” he said, but as the flagship university, it should be first in line for funding.
Traffic congestion, especially in Baton Rouge, is a constant concern, Edmonds said. Possible solutions include building more exits and interchanges to help remove the traffic snarls on I-10, including at Pecue Lane, and eliminate the Washington Street exit where the interstate narrows to one lane.
Edmonds said the state needs a multidecade traffic plan that outlines and prioritizes projects. Most importantly, he said, is that money for that plan needs to be found so that projects can get underway.
Finding ways to pay for projects will take some investigation, but should include seeking help from the state’s U.S. congressional delegation in steering federal transportation dollars to Louisiana, he said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter @awold10.