Freshman state Rep. Darrell Ourso took it on the chin from challengers — angered by the increased tax load approved during recent legislative session — at a forum Tuesday before Baton Rouge Republicans.
Three challengers — all Republicans — are trying to unseat him in the Oct. 24 election.
Ourso won a low-turnout, special election by 72 votes on March 28 — two weeks before legislators convened in an atmosphere of fear that colleges and hospitals could be closed because of a $1.6 billion deficit.
Woody Jenkins, chairman of the Republican Party of East Baton Rouge, introduced Ourso to the forum by reminding everyone that the House District 66 legislator representing southeast Baton Rouge was thrust into a session to deal with a lot of horrible decisions and didn’t have three years to develop a record.
While the candidates discussed a wide range of issues, including education and traffic concerns, dissatisfaction was heard again and again about a Louisiana Legislature that rolled back tax breaks — thereby increasing the amount of taxes owed, primarily by businesses — raising some fees and hiking the tax on cigarettes.
“We have a lot of politicians who stand in the conservative movement,” said newcomer Rusty Secrist, “and when they get in the arena, for some reason, some way, shape, form or fashion, they compromise … We’re disgusted with people who can’t do what they say they’re going to do.”
Seacrist’s business provides in-home care for the elderly and disabled.
Rick Bond, an investment counselor and lawyer who ran third in the special election, said a lot of people are unhappy about how the Legislature balanced the budget. “I’m concerned about the next session and the one after that,” he said.
The Rev. Rick Edmonds said Ourso was taking a lot of hits because the incumbent told voters about six months ago that he was not for taxes. “But he said ‘yes’ 11 times to taxes,” said Edmonds, the former Parkview Baptist Church pastor who is on a leave of absence from Louisiana Family Forum while campaigning.
Ourso acknowledged a tough session.
Ourso said the state’s fiscal system needs an overhaul, but changing how taxpayer dollars are dedicated to specific expenditures, which limits flexibility, requires a vote of the people, in most cases, and that wouldn’t have happened in time to raise the money needed. That tactic, necessary in the future, would have resulted in deep, deep cuts if attempted during this session.
“We saved LSU. You didn’t read the headline that a university declared bankruptcy,” Ourso told the 40 Republicans attending the forum. “I only had 60 days. We had six decades of poor fiscal policy.”
When asked to specifically name the university that he would close to save money, Ourso said higher education needs to be studied and duplicative programs should be identified and ended. But colleges and universities around the state act as economic engines for their regions and can’t be closed pell mell without serious repercussions.
“We have to continue looking at ways to make higher education more focused,” Ourso said. “We have to seriously take a look at unfunding if they are not performing.”
He said some higher education institutions need to be repurposed by partnering with industry in a particular region and providing workforce training. “Should we shutter something we spent hundreds of millions building? No,” he said.
Secrist said he would close Southern University New Orleans and the University of New Orleans, citing low graduation rates.
“We can’t applaud mediocrity,” Secrist said. “Just like our businesses: They either have to find a way to make it happen or close it down.”
“There are a couple universities that are performing very poorly. LSU-Alexandria is performing very poorly. We can’t continue doing that. It’s a waste of money,” Edmonds said. But first, the entire system should be evaluated, then realigned.
On traffic issues, Edmonds favored tolls to raise money for expanding and improving the regions roadways. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, ladies and gentlemen. Texas and Florida do an outstanding job,” he said.
Bond said the state should increase the gasoline tax, which goes to pay for transportation projects and has not been increased since the 1980s.
“I know tax is a dirty word for a Republican to say, but this is a user fee,” Bond said. “We have to have an all-of-the-above approach. We shouldn’t rule out anything: toll roads, public-private partnerships, anything.
Secrist said he didn’t want increasing taxes to be the go-to solution. He promoted adjusting existing infrastructure, such as taking the far left lane going east bound off the Interstate 10 Bridge over the Mississippi River and connecting it directly to Florida Boulevard, then build nine overpasses to hurry traffic out to Denham Springs.
“Let’s use what we have here,” he said. “Remove the red tape, let them build those overpasses.”
Ourso, who as a Baton Rouge metro councilman helped passed bond measures to pay for road improvements, said the task wasn’t easy. The state has a $12 billion backlog of road maintenance and expansion projects -- $5 billion of that figure is for the Baton Rouge area.
He said the state has to prioritize projects in the high congestion areas and study the feasibility of tolls and other ideas. But the costs are high. For instance, it would cost $500 million to add an additional lane from the Mississippi River Bridge to LSU-Dalrymple exit, an idea being pushed by many to ease congestion.
House District 66 stretches from Interstate 12 to Bayou Manchac, including Woodland Ridge, Old Jefferson, Santa Maria, Tiger Bend, the Country Club of Louisiana and many of the neighborhoods that would make up the city of St. George, if the residents there voted to incorporate.
The 29 precincts of House District 66 have 30,779 people eligible to vote. A total of 24,471 registered voters are white — almost 80 percent — and 49 percent, 14,982, are registered as Republicans, one of the state’s highest concentrations.
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