The runoff for House District 69 has both Republican candidates calling into question their opponents’ credentials to hold legislative office, while trying to differentiate themselves to the voters.
The primary election in October was tight. Former Deputy Commissioner of Insurance Paula Davis led East Baton Rouge Metro Councilman Ryan Heck by 82 votes. The Baton Rouge district seat opened up months ago, with the resignation of former state Rep. Erich Ponti.
Davis has never run for office before, though she was the state’s deputy insurance commissioner during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Heck, who ran unopposed in 2012 for his council seat, said his message of fixing Baton Rouge traffic and schools has resonated well with voters.
On policy, Davis and Heck both agree and part ways on different issues. Whoever is chosen by voters on Nov. 21 to represent the district will likely cast difficult votes soon after taking office, with the next governor expected to call special sessions as soon as January. Legislators could vote on any number of issues to deal with a looming projected budget deficit, from eliminating business tax incentives to cutting state programs.
One consistent issue Louisiana lawmakers confront each session is whether to make changes to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which has ballooned in size and was projected to cost the state about $250 million this year.
Both the House and Senate last session passed a TOPS bill to curtail the cost of the program, but that measure was later vetoed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Davis said she could support changes to TOPS if it meant the program would be preserved down the line and not subjected to drastic overhauls. She said she could support a tuition cap.
“If we have to curb it a little bit to keep it in play, then I would rather that than it going away completely,” Davis said.
Heck, on the other hand, said he could envision TOPS being the main way that the state funds higher education. Asked about a cap or change to TOPS, Heck said he “would have to look at specific measures.”
Another key budget issue will be deciding whether to expand the federal Medicaid insurance program for the poor, which many states have done under the Affordable Care Act. Jindal rejected expanding Medicaid during his tenure, but both governor candidates, U.S. Sen. David Vitter and state Rep. John Bel Edwards, have suggested they could support some version of expansion, although they differ on the details.
Davis said she will honor whatever the state’s future governor decides, although she said she would also want to feel out where hospitals stand on it.
Heck said he could only support Medicaid expansion with a few caveats. Expansion of the program would need to come with the criteria that those seeking it should also be looking for jobs, and that the state could opt out if the federal government changes its end of the bargain, he said.
Both Davis and Heck said they would keep a keen eye on the budget.
Heck said the state needs to learn how to match how much money it takes in to how much money it’s spending, the way he has to do as the owner of Cajun Ready Mix Concrete. He also said he will not use one-time money to fill the budget’s gaps.
Davis said she would especially want to open up money that’s statutorily dedicated, adding that many of the dedications are arcane. Freeing up the money could make a dent in the state’s deficit, she said.
She said she also wants sales tax reform for the state, because the state has too many sales tax mechanisms.
As for tax credits and exemptions created to boost business investment in Louisiana, Heck and Davis agreed that all of them need to be reviewed. Neither named specific exemptions that should be on the chopping block.
“I don’t think there’s a sacred cow in this argument,” Heck said.
Davis added members of the business community have told her they are worried about slashing tax incentives. She said she wants to make sure businesses play by the rules.
Davis and Heck are pitting their backgrounds against each other, and both say they are most qualified for the job of legislator.
Davis believes her years of lobbying and testifying at the Louisiana Legislature give her the advantage because she said she knows the ins and outs of state government.
“Another thing that makes me different is character,” Davis said. “I am honest; I have a lot of integrity, values and morals.”
Davis said Heck does not have the experience nor the character necessary for a legislator, but declined to cite any specific examples.
Asked to respond to Davis’ assertion that he has questionable character, Heck said, “My opponent doesn’t know anything about my character. If she wants to take cheap shots, that’s fine.”
Heck questioned Davis’ credentials, saying too many lobbyists are trying to influence state government.
“She introduces herself as a government affairs specialist,” Heck said. “I guess that’s a fancy word for lobbyist.”
Heck has a substantial fundraising lead over his competitor, bringing in more than $300,000 for his campaign through early November in comparison to Davis’ $170,000, according to campaign finance reports. Both have continued to send pleas to donors for more money.
Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby, one of the state’s biggest campaign contributors, has given $2,500 apiece to Heck and Davis.
They have both received money from a variety of political action committees, with both receiving donations from housing contractors ABC Pelican PAC and Louisiana Association of Business and Industry’s East PAC. Both have been endorsed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce’s PAC.
Heck has also received $5,000 from Koch Industries, owned by libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch, who are prolific campaign donors across the country. In Louisiana, the Koch-founded branch of Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group, has pushed for lawmakers to oppose Medicaid expansion.
Americans for Prosperity last year pushed legislators to sign a pledge opposing expansion of the program, but Heck said he hasn’t agreed to any particular policy positions.