The candidates for state House District 45 met Wednesday in a forum marked largely by agreement on issues ranging from gun control and mental health funding to infrastructure priorities and how to pay for them.
Republicans André Comeaux, Jan Swift and Jean-Paul Coussan are running to replace three-term state Rep. Joel Robideaux, who is barred from seeking re-election for the Lafayette-based seat because of term limits.
Meeting at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette student union in an event sponsored by the Acadiana Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists, the three candidates responded in turn to a series of questions from local news reporters.
On gun control — an issue in the forefront in the city since the Grand 16 Theatre shooting — views were unanimous: The Legislature should not pursue tougher restrictions on gun ownership.
The kinks should be worked out of the existing background check system for gun purchases, but more attention should be given to keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, said Swift, an attorney and director of the Upper Lafayette Economic Development Foundation.
“I think we need to look at better reporting for mentally ill people,” she said. “I don’t want to look at changing our gun laws. I think what we have now works. We need to enforce the laws.”
Coussan, a real estate attorney, said he supports a strategy recently proposed by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who has advocated focusing more on mental health screening and treatment and providing incentives for states to share criminal and mental health records with the national database used for background checks.
“I think that’s a starting point for some common ground on the gun issue,” Coussan said.
Comeaux, a risk management and insurance executive, said he does not believe restrictions on gun ownership get to the root cause of gun violence.
“We should attack this as a mental health issue, as opposed to a gun control issue,” he said.
That strategy could be difficult in Louisiana, where funding for mental health programs is anemic, but in response to another question, the candidates all supported fixing the state’s broken mental health system.
“We need to ensure that our state recognizes the problem and make sure on the legislative list of priorities that we have some funding for mental health and that it’s not just lost in the overall budget,” Coussan said.
Comeaux said he believes most legislators recognize the need for the state to restore financing for mental health treatment, but the issue has received little support from the governor’s office in recent years.
“The political will to get it done in the face of the power of the governor’s office to drive what’s on his agenda is going to be an issue,” Comeaux said.
Swift, whose mother suffered from mental illness, said the state’s long-neglected mental health system must be considered a key budget priority.
“We talk about funding. We need to talk about heart,” Swift said. “I want to see our state be strong. I want to see us help people who need help.”
The candidates talked of other priorities — new and bigger roads to serve Lafayette’s growing population, public education — but they acknowledged it’s going to be tough work to boost funding for anything in a state facing a budget shortfall when new legislators are sworn in next year.
The Legislature has tried to fill some of the budget gap by rolling back state tax credits and other incentives, and the three candidates said more should be done on that front.
Swift said Louisiana’s generous film tax credit program should be revamped to focus more on “homegrown” talent, rather than big, out-of-state movie companies.
She also said all incentives should be subject to a sunset provision and a mandatory cost-benefit analysis to determine if the incentives are actually growing jobs in the state.
Coussan said he would likely fight to keep in place incentives for the state’s core industries, such as oil-and-gas, but is suspicious of incentives targeting specialized industries with limited economic impact.
“Is it a core industry? How many people are employed in that industry?” he asked.
Comeaux said standards for objectively evaluating the effectiveness of incentive programs should have long been in place.
“We should go back and determine if it worked. It’s basic critical thinking,” he said.
The election is Oct. 24 with a run-off on Nov. 21 if necessary.