Experience, and whether that’s a positive or a negative, looms large in the race between state Rep. Nick Lorusso and challenger Stephanie Hilferty in House District 94.
The Oct. 24 election is a contest between a longtime incumbent and a political newcomer, with Lorusso touting his seniority and experience as key attributes to legislative success while Hilferty says she would inject new blood and focus more on the Orleans Parish side of the two-parish district. Both candidates are Republicans and live in the Lake Vista neighborhood.
Lorusso, 47, was first elected in a 2007 special election to replace former Rep. Peppi Bruneau. Because that election came before the general election later that year, and those elected earlier were term-limited, Lorusso says he would be returning to Baton Rouge as the third-most senior member of the House.
“This is a critical time. We’re going to have a new governor, and I don’t think now’s the time for on-the-job training,” said Lorusso, a lawyer.
Hilferty, 29, is basing her campaign largely on two top issues in New Orleans: crime and pothole-filled streets. A real estate agent for SRSA Commercial Real Estate in Metairie, she said it is important to make improvements in the city and stabilize the state’s budget issues in order to attract businesses.
“My opponent is a nine-year incumbent. He’s a nice guy. I don’t have anything bad to say to that effect,” Hilferty said. “My concern is: What legislation has he passed for our district? I don’t see the legislation I would want to see for our district.”
District 94 covers the Lakefront from the Suburban Canal in Metairie to the London Avenue Canal in New Orleans, stretching down to include some areas around City Park.
Lorusso said he has catered to the constituents in the district, pointing to legislation passed this year that shrank a no-build buffer zone along the levees near the 17th Street Canal that had prevented adjoining homeowners from building on parts of their property.
Hilferty said she would be a vocal advocate for more state funding to improve roads in the district. Post-Hurricane Katrina programs aimed at fixing streets shortchanged the district, she said. “We needed somebody at the table who was screaming and making sure we were getting our fair stab at that,” she said.
She also advocates state funds for New Orleans Police Department training facilities and for State Police to patrol the highways in the city, to allow local cops to focus on crime.
Lorusso said he tried to have sales tax money raised on the Orleans Parish side of the district specifically dedicated to road improvements but the effort failed after opposition from City Hall. He also said experience can make the difference between getting state money and not.
“Unfortunately, if we have a new state representative for our district, we’ll be last in seniority and bottom of the list when it comes to appropriations or capital outlay,” Lorusso said.
With budget issues looming large this year, both candidates said the state needs to look at reining in spending and freeing up at least some of the money that’s now tied to specific uses — restrictions that leave health care and higher education as the only areas that can be significantly cut.
Hilferty said the state should use a much more conservative estimate of oil prices when it makes out the state budget, particularly after falling oil prices exacerbated the deficit this year. But more comprehensive efforts to change state budgeting are needed, she said.
“It’s a structural deficit,” Hilferty said. “We can’t keep operating in this manner. It projects instability to the rest of the country; it projects instability to businesses considering relocating here.”
Hilferty said it would be reasonable to look at an increase in the gasoline tax to fund roadwork, saying it has been decades since the last time it was raised and gas prices are now low. However, she said such an increase should be tied to a cap that would cut the tax should gas prices rise above a certain amount.
Lorusso said he is not ready to support a gasoline tax increase. He said he would support changes to the tax code to make sure everyone has “skin in the game.”
One of a group of legislators who have been critical of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s use of one-time money to balance the budget year after year, Lorusso also endorsed efforts to look at the $7.7 billion the state gives away in tax credits. Those credits should be examined to determine whether they are worthwhile and should be cut if they are not, he said.
“I don’t mind giving a $1 tax credit if it puts $2 or $3 back in the treasury,” Lorusso said. “But the ones that aren’t putting money back into the treasury or are costing us money, we need to look at that.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.