Four challengers are trying to unseat incumbent Darrell Ourso in state House District 66 and they all agree that education, roads, and the state’s budgets are the key issues in the Oct. 24 election.
District 66 includes parts of the south portion of East Baton Rouge Parish.
Although the approaches are sometimes different, the issues that unite the candidates range from traffic problems that plague Baton Rouge, the need to reform the state budget process to hopes of improving local and higher education.
The five-candidate, all-male field includes four Republicans and one Democrat.
Ourso, a Republican who is the incumbent and a financial adviser, was elected in 2015 during a special election after former state Rep. Hunter Greene became a family court judge.
Ourso said budget issues are going to continue to be an overwhelming concern for the state Legislature, which needs to get away from using one-time money sources like the rainy day fund to plug holes in the state budget. It’s time, he said, to really look at the underlying problems of the budget process.
For example, he said, the Department of Revenue reported that the state gives away more than 50 percent of the revenue it generates in the form of rebates, refunds and tax credits.
“No business can survive if you give away half of what you get,” he said.
At the district level, traffic problems are a concern, and Ourso said solutions could include widening Interstate 10 from Washington Street to College Avenue and then from Highland Road through Ascension Parish to three lanes.
In addition, there needs to be another bridge built over the Mississippi River, although, he said, that’s more of a long-term strategy because it would take years to get that designed, funded and built, part of which could come from an increase in the gas tax.
Challenger Rick Bond, a Republican, said his experience owning small businesses and his training as an attorney set him apart from the other candidates in the experience he can bring to the office and the district.
Traffic problems, the need for budget reform and changes to higher education are top priorities for him, he said.
Bond said the Legislature is going to have to consider options to fix the congestion in Baton Rouge, including anything from toll roads to raising the gas tax.
“I think they hear the T word, the tax word, and just think that’s a horrible thing,” Bond said. “People are willing to pay for something if they get it.”
In higher education, Bond supports transitioning some of the state’s four-year universities into technical college training facilities to better fulfill the state need for industrial workers.
He said he recognizes that four-year universities are dear to their communities, but it doesn’t make sense to have 14 universities where someone can get a liberal arts degree when there is a need for more technical training.
Democrat Antoine Pierce, is a small-business owner working on economic development issues who said improving access to health care is his No. 1 priority.
“In portions of Baton Rouge, there’s no emergency care services,” Pierce said. “Health care has become a crisis here, a major issue.”
There is a need for more access to health care so that people who are less fortunate don’t have to do without, he said.
Statewide, the budget is the No. 1 issue, he said, and will take legislative cooperation and some give and take to accomplish any kind of reform.
“Louisiana is notorious for overspending and we have to get our spending under control,” Pierce said. “Robbing Peter to pay Paul and that’s essentially what we’re doing as a state. We have to consider every program that’s spending state dollars to make sure they’re being productive.”
The 2015 legislative session did work on the problem, he said, but they didn’t address the underlying issues.
“They just put a Band-Aid on a gaping open sore,” he said. “I guess they hope whoever gets in next year will fix it.”
Republican Rusty Secrist is also a small-business owner who said he decided to run after getting increasingly frustrated watching the 2015 legislative session wrangling over the budget shortfall.
“It seems like the first thing everyone wants to do is raise taxes,” he said.
Between legislative-approved protection and voter-approved constitutional protections for parts of the budget, there is little room for legislators to move when faced with shortfalls.
“You can not tell me there’s not waste out there,” Secrist said.
One example of savings would be to combine the four boards overseeing higher education systems into one board and to combine some universities as well, he said.
At the local level, Secrist said he would like to see primary education money follow the student so that parents have a choice of where to send their children.
However, he said, the most important issue in Baton Rouge is traffic.
“We’ve been talking about the loop for at least 37 years,” he said
For a quick fix, Secrist proposes connecting the eastbound lane on the 1-10 bridge to Florida Boulevard, making it a thoroughfare to Denham Springs to relieve traffic on the interstate.
Republican Rick Edmonds is vice president of Louisiana Family Forum and an outreach pastor of Bethany Church who said it appears that there is a void of leadership in the state Legislature and he would like to bring some vision back to the process.
Locally, education is a consistent concern for families, and Edmonds said he’s proposing a pilot project for East Baton Rouge Parish public schools that would place children who are behind into a laboratorylike setting where they can get caught up to grade level using computer course curriculum. Edmonds said he hasn’t worked out what that type of program might cost yet.
At the state level, he said, the tax code needs to be simpler and flatter, and the budget process needs to be overhauled.
Traffic problems could be helped through shorter term solutions such as changing the exits, including adding one at Pecue Lane and eliminating the Washington Street exit where the interstate narrows to one lane. Paying for the improvements will take some investigation, he said.
“To me, that says there is a lack of vision,” he said about what he saw in last year’s legislative session.
The seriousness of the budget issues seemed to overwhelm people, and Edmonds said he’d like to be the person to come in and rally those leaders again.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.