Improving access to health care in north Baton Rouge, raising the minimum wage and addressing the shortfall in the state budget are recurring themes among the candidates running for the open seat for District 29 of the Louisiana House of Representatives.
Five candidates, all Democrats, are vying for the elected office left by Ronnie Edwards, who died of pancreatic cancer only a few months after being voted into the Legislature and before she could cast her first vote.
The election is April 9, with a runoff election scheduled for May 14 if none of the candidates secure more than 50 percent of the vote.
The candidates are Edwards’ former East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council legislative aide Tyra Banks Sterling; attorney Victor Woods; East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member Vereta Lee; Abounding Love Ministries pastor the Rev. Albert White; and attorney Edmond Jordan.
The district stretches through north Baton Rouge and crosses the Mississippi River to include Port Allen and Brusly.
Sterling, 31, worked directly with Edwards as her assistant on the Metro Council. She said hopes to continue Edwards’ legacy as a consensus-builder.
Among her priorities are securing a stand-alone emergency room for north Baton Rouge, protecting the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships in the Legislature, implementing Common Core and raising the minimum wage.
The Legislature is in the throes of the regular session, trying to address a shortfall of about $750 million in the next fiscal year’s budget.
Sterling said to address the budget shortfall, she’d like to see the Legislature examine tax credits, consider raising the gasoline tax and implement a flatter tax filing structure. She also suggested curbing the state’s health coverage program for uninsured children up to the age of 19, suggesting the program instead could be limited to children 5 years old and younger.
“Everybody has to give a little bit of something,” she said.
Increasing the minimum wage is another a major priority, she said. Gov. John Bel Edwards is supporting legislation that would increase the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $8 per hour in January 2017 and then to $8.50 the following year.
“I was an adult graduate from college in the recession, and I had to take a minimum wage job,” Sterling said, pointing out that minimum wages affect more than just teenagers. “This is not a game, especially in an economically depressed district like north Baton Rouge.”
Woods, 48, is a private practice attorney based in Port Allen who previously worked as the city attorney for Port Allen and as a legal adviser for other public agencies. His top priorities in office are getting an emergency room to serve north Baton Rouge and improving Airline Highway to provide better connections and economic development to the north and west parts of the parish.
Like the other candidates, Woods said he’s bothered by the lack of health care access in north Baton Rouge left by the closure of the Earl K. Long Medical Center, which was in House District 29, and the Baton Rouge General emergency room in Mid City.
But Woods said instead of building new infrastructure, he’d like to explore the potential of expanding the services of the Champion Medical Center, a specialized surgical hospital off Harding Boulevard, to include an emergency room.
For fixing the state budget shortfall, Woods said he’s open to both more revenue increases and budget cuts. He suggested the state consider negotiating its contracts with private businesses, asking everyone to take a reduction in profit of 1 to 2 percent.
“We’re asking our state agencies and departments to cut their budgets,” he said. “So it would be appropriate to ask those offering service to look at their budgets and see if they can do the same thing. We all have to make sacrifices.”
Woods said he’s a supporter of increasing the minimum wage but also is cautious about it hurting businesses.
“I think it’s necessary, but it must be done in a smart and appropriate manner so it doesn’t have a down effect on the areas it’s intended to help,” he said.
Lee, 58, is in her 10th year on the School Board. She also works as a student support services supervisor for the Baker school system and previously worked as a teacher in East Baton Rouge Parish, until she was put on a five-year leave without pay for allegedly helping a student cheat.
Lee said her priorities are protecting funding for education and supporting Medicaid expansion.
As a longtime educator, Lee said she is passionate about issues facing K-12 classrooms and will fight for restoring funds to public schools that have been cut in recent years. She’s against special treatment for charter schools, which she believes allows the schools to have lower education standards that ultimately hurt students.
She also does not want the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to have the authority to overrule local school boards on charter school applications.
Lee also opposes vouchers, which allow students from C, D and F public schools to receive state aid to attend private schools.
“If they want to go to private school, so be it,” Lee said. “But don’t you take my tax dollars. Don’t you ask for my money to go and fund your private education.”
Lee said to fix the state budget, she supports raising more revenue while protecting both higher education and K-12 from additional cuts. She also has a unique plan to legalize all-terrain vehicles for the streets, which she said would generate millions of dollars through inspections, registrations and licence plates.
ATVs are not street-legal in most of the United States, but Lee said, they can be upgraded for roads, and she believes they are no less safe than a motorcycle.
Jordan is a Port Allen attorney who made the runoff in the election against Ronnie Edwards in November.
Jordan didn’t answer phone calls Friday, but at a recent forum, he touted himself as a candidate who has been engaged and involved in community issues.
He noted that in recent months, he spoke out to the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council on issues including favoring body cameras for police officers, opposing a misdemeanor jail and supporting a measure that would no longer require ex-convicts to check a box on their city-parish job applications indicating they’d served jail time.
“I’m engaged, I’m involved and I’m accessible,” he said.
Jordan said during his previous campaign that he is a school choice advocate. He serves as vice president of South Louisiana Charter Foundation Inc., a nonprofit board that has contracted with for-profit Charter Schools USA to run three charter schools in the Baton Rouge area.
He’s on the other side of the aisle to Lee in their approach to charters and vouchers. He said he’s a supporter of vouchers, but he also favors closing underperforming charter schools.
Jordan said at the forum this week that one way he envisions fixing the budget is through tax reform, like a plan that failed in the special session to eliminate a federal income tax deduction for individual filers. That measure alone would raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the state, but an attempt in this year’s special session was watered down to only affect corporations.
White is a pastor at the Abounding Love Ministries, but he did not return repeated phone calls to multiple phone numbers associated with him and his church.
At recent public forums, White has characterized himself as a community leader who works with schools, businesses, prisons and churches.
He said his church is at the forefront of volunteer events like bike giveaways to low-income children.
“I’m not coming up with a plan because I’ve been working the plan for the past 30 years,” White said.
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