In a district where a major employer recently laid off hundreds of workers and where local officials have long been trying to stimulate a more robust business environment, four men seeking to represent northern East Baton Rouge Parish and the Felicianas in the state Legislature are all focusing their campaigns on economic development.
The District 62 seat in the House of Representatives is currently occupied by Roy Daryl Adams, who was elected in March to fill an unexpired term. He replaced Kenny Havard, who left the legislative post he’d held since 2012 to become president of West Feliciana Parish.
Adams, an Independent, is now running for a full term against Derald Spears Sr., who has no party affiliation, and two Republican political newcomers: Johnny Arceneaux and Bradley Behrnes.
Election Day is Oct. 12. Early voting runs Sept. 28 to Oct. 5.
Though they have different approaches in mind, the candidates agree that District 62 — which encompasses the Zachary area and much of East and West Feliciana parishes — needs more jobs. Renewed attention was cast on the issue earlier this year when the Georgia-Pacific mill in Port Hudson shuttered its office paper division, eliminating about 600 positions.
“It not only affects people’s lives and families, but it affects the school systems, the income that they were relying on,” said Behrnes, 38, who lives in Slaughter and is a regional director for Louisiana Workforce LLC, which contracts with sheriff’s offices.
Behrnes said he’ll look into undoing recent changes to the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program, or ITEP, that give local governing bodies a say in whether to grant tax breaks. “We’ve become an unpredictable place,” which deters companies, he said.
Behrnes, along with Arceneaux and Spears, said the Felicianas are a hidden jewel that needs to be promoted to businesses eyeing expansion.
“We have a huge land base in both East and West Feliciana that’s undeveloped,” Spears said, noting that lower taxes in East Feliciana Parish are an added bonus. An Ethel resident, Spears, 50, works for the Shell Oil Company and sits on the East Feliciana Parish School Board.
Growing the regional tax base would help sustain the top-rated school systems in Zachary and West Feliciana Parish and support improvements to lower-performing East Feliciana Parish schools, Spears said.
But “you can’t do economic development if you don’t have a workforce,” said Arceneaux, 65, who plans to retire at the end of this month after 12 years as an administrator at the Baton Rouge Community College campus in Jackson. “You need skilled workers and you need enough of them.”
Arceneaux, of St. Francisville, wants to create more opportunities for high schoolers to earn college credit and gain technical training. He and Adams both would like to try to find money to restore the nursing program at the Baton Rouge Community College Jackson campus, which was shut down amid state budget cuts years ago.
“We probably have 40 openings (for nurses) right now in our state agencies,” Arceneaux said, referring to the Louisiana Veterans Home, the Dixon Correctional Institute and the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System, all in Jackson.
Funding to those agencies needs to be increased, Adams said, both to alleviate staffing shortages and to ensure people can access services they need.
“We have people that are in jail. They don’t need to be in jail; they need to be in a mental hospital,” said Adams, 61, a Jackson resident who operates a family-owned store.
Another way to enhance the region’s economy is by funding infrastructure upgrades, the candidates said.
“Zachary’s growing like a tumbleweed. We’ve got to keep the roads up,” Adams said, adding that drainage is a major concern in that area, too.
Spears said he’ll explore the idea of building a reservoir in the district near the Mississippi state line to reduce the amount of water that flows south to creeks, bayous and rivers.
Adams and Arceneaux hope to help bring high-speed internet coverage to rural communities, an effort they believe would further boost the district’s appeal to businesses.