The two candidates for the state Senate’s 1st District seat in the Oct. 24 election each say they’re the right choice to go to Baton Rouge and tackle the state’s budget troubles.
The candidates are Pete Schneider, a business owner and former legislator, and Sharon Hewitt, a former Shell Oil engineer who bills herself as a problem-solver, not a politician.
On the surface, the two have a lot in common. Both are Republicans from the eastern side of St. Tammany Parish, which makes up most of the district, and both are self-described conservatives.
Each can boast an extensive résumé of civic and community leadership. Hewitt chairs St. Tammany Parish Recreation District 16 and has a Life Achievement Award from the National PTA. Schneider serves on the Sugar Bowl Committee, has been a trustee for the Public Affairs Research Council and coached youth soccer.
The 1st District also includes portions of Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes.
Both candidates are focusing on fiscal reform as the key issue in the race, and they see a need to change statutory and constitutional protections that put higher education and health care on the chopping block whenever the state needs to reduce spending.
Hewitt says she’ll bring the logic and solution-finding skills she demonstrated in the oil business and civic affairs to state government.
She says she was the driving force behind bringing weighted grades to honors and Advanced Placement classes in St. Tammany Parish schools — a goal she accomplished even though she didn’t yet have children in high school and despite the resistance of school officials.
Schneider points to his four terms in the state House of Representatives and his experience as the president of his family business, St. Joe Brick Works. That background enables him to build coalitions and relationships, he said, and also has made him capable of seeing the “snakes’’ in legislation.
“I know how to navigate the choppy waters in state government and the Legislature,’’ he said.
Schneider, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate District 11 in 2007, said supporters asked him to seek the District 1 seat when A.G. Crowe announced he would not seek re-election.
The former legislator said he’s been disappointed in the state’s direction over the past eight years and especially by increases in tax exemptions. In 2003-04, he said, the state had $5.4 billion in tax revenue and $1.5 billion in tax exemptions. A decade later, he said, the state is bringing in $7.5 billion in revenue with $7.6 billion in exemptions.
“That’s $100 million more we’re giving away than taking in,’’ he said. “It’s not a revenue problem; it’s a spending problem and a giveaway problem.’’
He’s not calling for eliminating all exemptions, he said, but he wants each one to be scrutinized. He also favors a constitutional convention to address the state’s underlying budgetary problems.
Hewitt, who made an unsuccessful run for a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education seat in 2011, entered the Senate race even before Crowe bowed out. She said she’s running because the state badly needs leadership.
The state’s budget drives everything else, she said, and Louisiana can’t continue to operate with 90 percent of the budget off-limits for cuts. The state also needs to address the effects that frivolous lawsuits and over-regulation have had on its business climate, she said.
Fracking is a hot issue in St. Tammany Parish, and at a recent forum, the candidates differed on whether the state Department of Natural Resources should be able to override local zoning regulations in authorizing wells.
Hewitt, who said she gave up a career with Shell Oil to spend more time with her family, defended the safety of fracking wells and the importance of the oil and gas industry to the state’s economy. But she also said her background makes her the better person to hold DNR and the oil and gas industry accountable and “ask the tough questions’’
At the same forum, Schneider said he supports a change in law to give local governments more control. But he added that he is a proponent of the oil and gas industry and his support for giving priority to zoning restrictions shouldn’t be seen as opposing production and exploration. The solution is for everyone to be a good neighbor, he said.
The two candidates have taken some shots at each other during the campaign.
Schneider has criticized Hewitt for championing a millage increase sought by the recreation district she chairs. The tax, which would have paid to build a large park in the Slidell area, was soundly defeated by voters in the spring, but Schneider said she still defends it.
Hewitt has called Schneider a career politician and has criticized his work as the former chairman of the House Committee on Retirement, saying the state has significant unfunded liabilities in its public pensions system because of actions taken during his watch.
Hewitt also has accused Schneider of benefiting from the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act, which was designed to encourage economic development after Hurricane Katrina. St. Joe Brick Works sold land for three projects — Magerko Management/84 Lumber, Rooms to Go and Associated Wholesale Groceries — that received GO Zone bond financing. Two occurred while he was still in the Legislature.
Schneider said he didn’t control of any of the GO Zone process. The St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation worked to bring the developers to the parish, and the state Bond Commission decided on the bonds, he said. But he said he’s proud to have sold land to developers who brought jobs to the parish.
Hewitt, who began campaigning in February, has raised more money and spent more than her opponent. She reports $102,655 in contributions and has loaned her campaign $100,000. After spending nearly $87,000, she had $117,000 left in her coffers as of the Sept. 14 reporting date.
Schneider reported just over $48,000 in contributions from June 11 to Sept. 15. He loaned his campaign nearly $98,000 and spent about $68,000 with nearly $78,000 left on hand.
Schneider has been endorsed by the St. Tammany, St. Bernard and Orleans Parish chapters of the Alliance for Good Government, the Orleans Parish Republican Executive Committee, the Louisiana Homebuilders Association, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Regular Democratic Organization of New Orleans.
Hewitt has been endorsed by the St. Tammany and St. Bernard parishes Republican executive committees, the Louisiana Association of Educators, GatorPAC and the political action committees of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association and Louisiana Lawsuit Fairness.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.