Priorities need to exclude politics, LaCombe says
A large majority for Republicans in the House and Senate will pose challenges for Gov. John Bel Edwards and Democrats in the legislature, but the push on prioritized issues must continue, state Rep. Jeremy LaCombe said.
The biggest priorities facing the state the next four years cross party lines, said LaCombe, one of the 35 Democrats – and among the only four whom are white – in the state House of Representatives,
Infrastructure will top the agenda. He wants lawmakers to find ways to cut into the $14 billion backlog of road improvement projects on the drawing board for the state Department of Transportation and Development.
Lawmakers should also push heavily for the construction of a new Mississippi River Bridge, which has been a top of discussion for several years.
“It’s not a wish list item – it’s a necessity,” LaCombe said.
State Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, has already launched a TV ad pushing for support of the new artery, which would significantly reduce traffic along the I-10 corridor throughout the capitol region.
The agreement among members of the Capital Area coalition of lawmakers for construction a new bridge reflects a bipartisan effort.
The backlog of projects – and how to tackle it – is a different story.
The state needs to consider additional sources of funding to bring roads up to standard, but legislation to help reduce the backlog have proven futile.
A bill in 2017 by Republican state Rep. Steve Carter would have added 17 cents to the gasoline tax, which has not been adjusted since 1987.
The rate of inflation has significantly reduced the amount of money the state receives from the tax, but pushback by Republicans – and a campaign spearheaded by Virginia-based GOP thinktank Americans for Prosperity – brought the proposal to an end before it could go up for a House vote.
The pushback could become worse when Gov. Edwards faces a larger makeup of Republicans in both chambers, LaCombe said.
“I don’t know how we can do it or how we can get it done, but we have to do something,” he said.
The House will have 68 Republicans, 35 Democrats and two independents. Under those numbers, the GOP does not have the power to override a Edwards veto.
Brown speaks on upcoming new year and its sessions
Legislators need to move past the partisan bickering and come together for the betterment of the state during the next four years, according to state Rep. Chad Brown.
Brown, D-Plaquemine, believes it is possible even as Republicans have come closer to a super majority in the House and gained several seats in the Senate.
“Even though we have a more partisan body than we’ve traditionally had in the past, I believe we have a legislature that has enough members willing to put aside partisanship to do what’s right,” he said. “At least that’s my hope.”
Early childhood education and transportation will rank as two of Brown’s top priorities when Gov. John Bel Edwards takes office for his second term on Jan. 13.
Both issues figure among the top needs of his district, he said.
Despite being one of only white four Democrats in the House, Brown said his bipartisan approach to bills should help in terms of moving bills forward.
The previous term brought the legislature its first independent speaker – one not nominated by the governor.
The process by which the House selects the representative to replace New Iberia Republican Taylor Barras could determine plenty about the next four years.
“It made things difficult in which you may have had a good plan brought forth by a Democrat or a Republican, but then there were obstacles there because they didn’t want the governor to succeed,” Brown said. “Hopefully, we won’t see that these four years since Gov. Edwards can’t run for reelection.
“Personally, I represent a very diverse district, and I generally don’t vote strictly on party lines because I represents some very poor constituents, but also many who work in the chemical manufacturing industry, as well as farmers, so I try to keep things issue-specific,” he said. “That’s how I remember it, when lawmakers were more geographically based in their vote, rather than party, and that’s something I will continue to do.”
Brown said he has agreed and disagreed with Gov. Edwards, despite their mutual party affiliation. He believes Edwards has been a successful governor who has been willing to work across the aisle.
The hike in teacher pay during the last session, which passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate, was one of example of how both parties could work together, he said.
Another increase in salary for state educators will likely rank high on the priority list for the 2020 session, Brown said.
“I’m definitely for it,” he said. “While teachers were very thankful, we knew it wasn’t enough, so we want to get those teachers back on the southern regional average for the first time in ten years, but we couldn’t get there without taking the first step, and it’s now time to take the next step.”
The increase in the Minimum Foundation Program – the funding mechanism for public school systems – was also a major accomplishment, Brown said.
The bigger test will center around the 4.45-cent sales tax and whether to continue it now that the state has seen several surpluses in the years since Gov. Edwards inherited a $2 billion budget deficit when he took office in 2016.
“When people look at the surplus, some will say we’re overtaxed and others will say we were more successful,” Brown said. “I think some of the success came from the increase in income tax due to the federal tax changes.”
A move to eliminate the sales tax could prove risky for the state.
Unlike the federal government, the state constitution bars Louisiana government from going into a fiscal year without a balanced budget.
“The federal government and Congress can cut taxes and say they will stimulate growth and do it by creating a deficit, but we can’t do that,” Brown said.
It’s a different story for the state government, which must act off the recommendations of the Revenue Estimating Conference, a group of legislators and independent economists who advise the state on the estimated revenue totals over the next fiscal year.
Surplus revenue comes only because the economy grew more than anticipated during the fiscal year, or because of outside influences such as the federal tax changes.
Brown expects discussion on the sales tax, but he believes it should be done in an overall discussion over how to improve the state tax structure.
“There’s been talk by the governor’s office and the other side about lowering the overall rate and look at exemptions, but that becomes problematic when you start to look at who the exemptions benefit,” he said. “But what people need to realize is that when we have a surplus, we can only use it on certain items that are outlined in the constitution, such as the “Rainy Day Fund” or paying off debt, which is a conservative principle.”
It could also go toward construction projects, a dire need across the Westbank and much of the state.
How the state makes a concentrated effort toward those improvements is another issue. A 2017 proposal to levy a 17-cent gas tax to chip away at the $14 billion backlog on the state Department of Transportation and Development’s $14 billion backlog of road improvement projects.
“I wish it would’ve gone for a vote just to see where we stood with that,” Brown said. “I’m not saying it was the right way to go, but as opposed to other states, our gas tax is much lower and other states may have other funding mechanism to target road projects.”
The current tax of 38.4 cents for a gallon of unleaded gasoline holds only one-third of the value it had when it took effect in 1989.
The reduced value due to inflation poses a roadblock for the state on the backlog of projects, as well as new projects on the wish list.
“That would include projects such as a new bridge, which we all know needs to happen,” Brown said. “There’s going to be conversation on what’s the right funding, and we’re going to lay it on the table to find the right mechanism.
“We can’t continue to fall behind,” he said.
It won’t stop the push for a new Mississippi River Bridge, which has been a major priority for Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso and other parish leaders who serve on a state committee jockeying for the project.
The discussion needs to continue, particularly with traffic issues which issues across the Greater Baton Rouge area, Brown said.
“It’s only going to get worse,” he said. “There are many other things along with that magical bridge that we need, including widening of La. 30 on the other side of the river and the widening of Interstate 10, but it’s going to be interesting going forward in terms of how we will solve that.
“My hope is that we can put this election behind us to address these issues” Brown said. “Some hope we will stay in gridlock for the next four years until the next governor is elected, but we can’t afford to do that in terms of our traffic issues. We need to work together.”