Candidates for the District 51 House of Representatives race squared off at the St. Mary Industrial Group’s monthly luncheon Monday.
Morgan City resident Howard Castay, no party affiliation, and incumbent Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, are vying to represent the district which encompasses parts of Assumption, St. Mary, Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes.
As at previous forums, Castay launched several accusations at Harrison including that he voted with other lawmakers to give himself a raise during his first 90 days in office. He also authored a bill to increase office expense accounts for lawmakers from $1,500 per month to $6,000 per month. Further, Castay said the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry gave Harrison a score of 55 out of 100 for his work in fighting for business and jobs between 2008 and 2011.
Harrison responded to Castay’s attacks point-by-point.
On the raise, Harrison explained he was a member of the freshman caucus and was against the raise, but the group was approached by the governor who “implored the freshman caucus to vote for it” because the cost of being in government is prohibitive on the middle class.
As for the office expenses, Harrison said he routinely returns $4,000 per month to the state and has one of the lowest expense reports of all legislators. This is because parish officials offer him office space rent-free in the courthouse. Were that not the case, it might be necessary to utilize the funds in service of the district’s constituents.
The LABI score is a “misnomer,” Harrison said, because he has authored more than 100 bills and resolutions affecting business. However, each bill must be ferried through the legislative process.
Castay touched on a number of topics he said are important to the area including the oil moratorium, education, health care, the BP disaster and flood control.
On the oil moratorium, he said “we need to drill, plain, pure and simple.”
A permanent flood control structure at Bayou Chene is a necessity to protect the area from what Castay said is the nation’s problem — spring thaw.
He called for accountability in governmental agencies that collect tolls as well as in the governor’s office, which he called out for not opening its books yet.
On BP, Castay said the company should pay all the damages to the coast as well as to the livelihoods of the residents.
Harrison said since he took over the Louisiana Legislature’s Joint Claims committee about two months ago, 40 percent more claims have been paid.
Being a financial analyst by trade, Harrison said he likes to “follow the money” and has, thus, ordered more audits than any other member of the state House. In doing so, he said he learned that of the $900 million generated annually by gaming, a mere $200 million goes to education, the promised destination of the funds when gaming originally was passed by Louisiana voters.
He said he plans to change that in his next term.
Harrison also noted the millions he has helped regional higher education institutions secure, noting that the state spends about $11,000 per student annually but about $60,000 per child incarcerated in youth detention centers annually.
Several audience members had questions for the candidates.
Parish President Paul Naquin asked both candidates how they intend to secure money to assist the reopening of the Young Memorial campus in Franklin.
Harrison said he would like to use redistributed gaming funds as well as utilizing technology in place at Nicholls State University to put more high-end technology training programs in place once the campus was re-established.
Castay said he did not believe all educational grants and opportunities were fully explored. Further, marketing was not fully explored. Some people, he said, did not know the campus existed.
Franklin is not in House District 51.
Asked their feelings on the corporate franchise tax, Harrison said he believes a study of surrounding states is in order. The current code has not been reviewed in 20 years, he said. Castay said he is against the tax because the state taxes businesses too much.
Naquin asked how the candidates planned to assist the implementation of I-49 through St. Mary Parish.
Harrison said regional lawmakers are working to combine this project and one for La. 1 to gain sway on the national level. Doing so may help bring back some of the gas tax money the state has sent away for years, he said.
In whatever form, a state-level financial match will be necessary to make the project a reality, he said, adding that he has looked at a toll road. Realizing that there is a large entitlement population here, a toll road isn’t a reality, he said.
Castay said he is in favor of I-49, and said government needs to step up to assist. He would consider a toll road.
Finally, the candidates were asked how they would assist in shoring up area levees rather than continuing requirements that land be raised beyond flood levels before building.
Harrison said that 60 percent of the fines from BP are required to be used for environmental projects, so the money is not really an issue. However, the Corps of Engineers is a problem. Most people, he said, don’t realize that you must undergo a 29 point check before you can consider doing any levee work. He said a new Congress might help address the Corps issue.
Castay said he doesn’t believe anyone should have to raise their homes or their businesses and have to pay for it, but it will take extensive lobbying of Congress to change the current rules.
The rest of the nation, he said, is not convinced that their spring thaw is our problem, but we’re not responsible for their water, he said.