All four candidates seeking the Plaquemine-based House District 60 seat agree that a new Mississippi River bridge needs to be built — a project they say could be financed with tolls and private investment.
The district, which includes Iberville and Assumption parishes, is home to numerous chemical plants and other industrial facilities that would benefit from another route over the river, candidates say. Workers who commute from Baton Rouge contend with daily traffic jams on the Interstate 10 bridge, which has made the proposed new bridge a big topic in political circles in recent years.
Karen St. Germain, the district’s term-limited representative from Pierre Part, has long pushed for a new bridge and frequently called attention to Louisiana’s infrastructure woes.
Those vying for the seat include Iberville Parish sheriff’s Deputy James Barker, attorney Chad Brown and high school teacher Thomas Gaudet, who all live in Plaquemine. A fourth candidate, Mike Latino, the owner of a trucking company, lives in Belle Rose.
The most recent campaign finance reports show Brown leading the field in fundraising, with more than $8,000 on hand. Barker had about $6,300 in the bank, while Gaudet had $250. Latino did not report raising any funds, but he has spent $465.
The primary election is Oct. 24, with a runoff on Nov. 21 if needed.
Barker, a seven-year veteran of the Iberville Parish Sheriff’s Office, does not have a party affiliation — an advantage, he said, because he can “work with both sides.”
Barker, 26, said building a new Mississippi River bridge is important, and he wants to look at financing the project using tolls and public-private partnerships.
The state budget deficit also needs attention, Barker said, although he does not yet have a definite opinion on raising taxes or capping incentive programs to balance the budget.
However, Barker, who describes himself as a conservative, said he wants to keep the business inventory tax rebate in place because it helps small businesses. He also opposes taxing business utilities. The Legislature raised $103 million for the budget last session by temporarily suspending the 1-cent sales tax exemption that businesses receive for their power purchases, prompting the Louisiana Chemical Association to a file a lawsuit that is ongoing.
“If businesses are forced to pay the tax, the result would cause layoffs and cost thousands of jobs,” Barker said.
Barker said he would push for economic and workforce development, possibly in the form of job training programs geared toward the agricultural and chemical industries that are the backbone of District 60.
He also wants to boost funding for law enforcement agencies and early childhood education programs.
Brown, 45, is a former chief of staff and deputy commissioner in the state Department of Insurance who returned to private law practice in 2008.
Brown, a Democrat, said his No. 1 issue is reducing traffic congestion. He said he will fight for a new Mississippi River bridge, but he also wants to explore building a bypass road that would divert traffic from the interstate and La. 1 onto smaller existing highways.
Brown said he’s open to making changes to Louisiana’s tax structure and exemption programs based on an in-depth analysis but noted that new revenue streams such as toll roads should be considered, too.
Brown said he will promote programs that partner high schools with technical colleges so students can get industry certifications when they graduate.
“It’s creating more jobs for our people, better-paying jobs, providing a skilled workforce for our available jobs out there,” Brown said.
He also wants to work to improve water quality in the Atchafalaya Basin by dredging areas that have become silted and shallow. “It’s the lifeblood for much of our district,” he said, noting that both commercial and recreational fishermen depend on the Basin.
Gaudet, 56, a Democrat, is a ninth-grade social studies teacher at Assumption High School with previous experience in retail management.
Like his opponents, a new bridge is his top priority. He wants the project to be a collaborative effort between government and industry.
“People who travel and work at the chemical plants along this area will be attracted to the jobs … if they had a bridge that was easier to cross,” Gaudet said.
Tolls and taxes are both options for funding the bridge, he said.
Gaudet, who has 21 years of teaching experience, said he wants to hold meetings to educate both parents and students about Common Core.
“Common Core’s not a bad thing,” Gaudet said. “It’s standards we’re trying to improve our schools with.”
Gaudet said higher education and health care funding “shouldn’t be axed first” when budget cuts are made. Other areas of state government should have their constitutional protections from budget cuts removed, he said.
He said he supports capping tax credit programs and raising corporate taxes to help fill the budget deficit.
He also wants to commit state money to help elderly people get medical services without having to move into a nursing home.
Latino, 54, a Republican, owns a trucking company, KSK Inc., and previously served as an Ascension Parish police juror.
Latino also wants a new Mississippi River bridge and said the project should be entirely privatized instead of using tax money. Tolls are a possible funding source, he said.
“I think it’s feasible for the people who are going to want to use it,” he said, noting that people commute on the I-10 bridge largely for work.
Latino wants the new bridge to connect to La. 30, I-10 and I-12 on the east bank of the river and to La. 415 on the west side so truck stops and other businesses “don’t complain about the trucks going by them without being able to use them.”
He said he also would work to have La. 1 resurfaced.
Latino, who’s originally from Donaldsonville and moved to Assumption Parish about 20 years ago, lives near Bayou Corne. He said he will keep an eye on the sinkhole there and “make sure everything is done right.”
Texas Brine recently proposed discharging water into Bayou Corne to help reduce the depth of the sinkhole, Latino said. The company ultimately decided not to do so, but such a plan would have threatened the cleanliness of waterways that fishermen depend on, he said.
Latino does not want to raise any taxes but said certain tax credit programs and constitutional dedications should be suspended to help fill the state’s budget deficit.
“I started up my small business 30 years ago, and I didn’t get any tax credit,” he said.
Latino also said diversions from the transportation fund, such as helping to fund the State Police, should stop.
“Money needs to be put back in its right place,” he said.