The three Ascension Parish Republicans vying to replace term-limited state Rep. Eddie Lambert all promise to take a close look at state spending and push to break some constitutional spending protections to allow future budget cuts. But they also have differences in whether they support any tax increases, the controversial Common Core education standards or the expansion of Medicaid coverage.
Besides the state government’s continuing budget woes likely to face the newly elected governor and state legislators, all candidates for state House District 59 expressed interest in finding more money from the state Department of Transportation and Development for highway dollars to widen Ascension’s overtaxed roads.
The House district is entirely contained within Ascension Parish, where many key thoroughfares — Airline Highway, La. 42, La. 44, La. 30 and La. 73 — are state highways.
Lambert, R-Gonzales, is leaving his seat for state Senate District 18, where he will replace term-limited Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, after Lambert faced no opposition during qualifying last month.
House District 59 encompasses much of Dutchtown, Prairieville and areas northwest of Gonzales that are among the fastest-growing parts of the parish and where infrastructure troubles are often top of mind for voters. Of the 28,500 registered voters, 43 percent are Republicans with the rest split evenly among Democrats and other parties.
Tony Bacala, 58, a longtime Ascension Parish sheriff’s deputy and chief deputy to Sheriff Jeff Wiley, retired in February to run for the seat. Bacala brings an endorsement from his old boss and 23rd Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin and holds a significant funding advantage over his opponents. His campaign war chest includes contributions from Wiley, sheriff’s deputies, as well as business and industry allies and conservative political activist Lane Grigsby, all of whom Bacala claims to have common cause in supporting industry and jobs.
Pat Bell, 67, is a retired chemical plant worker and former one-term Ascension Parish councilman and current commissioner for the Pontchartrain Levee District who had held several other government posts, including as a sergeant at arms in the state Senate. He said he sees a post in the Legislature as a way to continue helping people as he has from other government posts. He counts support from teachers and plumbers unions among his campaign contributors.
Rusty Messer, 42, is a general litigation lawyer based in Gonzales who also does contract work for the 23rd Judicial District Public Defender’s Office. He has had some donations but has financed much of his own campaign so far. At least one fundraiser, put on by law firms Oct. 6, has not yet been reported, according to available reports. He pitches himself as someone who is not a career politician and has received an endorsement from state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge.
Like Bacala and Bell, Messer said he is running because he wants to address many of Louisiana’s problems, including trying to stop state government from raiding the state Transportation Trust Fund for uses other than road spending.
“We have to stop balancing our budget with one-time funds. We have to stop cutting education and health care every time there’s a problem. We have got to do something about our roads and our infrastructure when we keep robbing the trust fund to pay for other things,” Messer said. “I just think there’s real problems that’s going to take a lot courage to fix.”
Bell, Bacala and Messer also said they would support constitutional changes, which would require voter backing, to remove restrictions on state spending so programs other than higher education and health care can be cut to balance the state budget.
This year’s state budget ending June 30 is estimated to have a $400 million hole while next year’s budget is expected to have a $1 billion shortfall.
But no candidate — Bacala and Bell are married to public school administrators or teachers — said he is in favor of removing the constitutional protection on the Minimum Foundation Program, the $3.7 billion formula for primary and second public school education.
While Bell and Bacala said they were opposed to tax increases to balance the state budget, Messer said he would like to see a 2-cents-per-gallon increase in the state’s 20-cents-per-gallon gas tax.
Messer said other states average 40 cents per gallon. He said if approved, the 2-cent-per-gallon tax increase would generate $60 million per year, enough almost to cover the state’s annual $72 million road maintenance budget, freeing up that money for other work.
While Bacala is interested in ending some dedications, he said he would seek legislation to recoup 25 percent of the gasoline taxes Ascension contributes to the transportation trust fund. He said the shift, about a nickle’s worth on every gallon, would dedicate money to projects in the parish and generate $4 million per year, which could be matched with federal highway dollars on a 2-1 or 3-1 basis.
While arguing the $600 million in the trust fund isn’t enough, Bacala also critiqued the way the state allocates the money it has. He took aim at the TIMED program, which set aside a portion of the gasoline tax for a list of long-term major projects. Among those projects was the $409 million John James Audubon Bridge in St. Francisville, finished in May 2012, that sees only 3,400 cars per day.
“I can point to dozens of roads in Ascension Parish that see, you know, 10 times that amount of traffic,” Bacala said.
In addition to roads, Bell said drainage is a major concern in Ascension and counted his current and past experience in local government, on the levee board, on the Amite River Basin Commission and other bodies as giving him an advantage in being able to marshal state resources.
“I’ve got the tools, and I’ve got resources. I can contact people that deal with high water and floods,” he said.
Bell said he would try to build coalitions among neighboring legislators to press for road money.
Outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal has opposed the expansion of Medicaid called for under the Affordable Care Act due to philosophical and budgetary grounds, but all four major gubernatorial candidates have shown interest in expansion of some kind to access the billions available from the federal government. The state will ultimately share in 10 percent of the cost, however.
Messer and Bell said they support the expansion while Bacala gave a more qualified answer. He said he supports the concept, arguing taxpayers and health care users with insurance pay for the uninsured through the charity hospital system or with higher insurance premiums and hospital costs. But he said he would want to look closely at the numbers before he agreed.
On Common Core, Messer said he is in favor of it and higher standards and believes Common Core has been misunderstood. While Bell favors higher standards, he thinks they can be achieved locally. He said he totally opposes Common Core.
Bacala took a more nuanced position, saying he is for better standards than Common Core but believes Common Core is bogging down teachers.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.