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Several local state representatives and senators have more than a billion problems on their minds.

“We have a $1.3 billion shortfall in the state’s budget,” said Rep. Jerome “Dee” Richard (NP-Thibodaux). “We have a spending problem in this state. We have don’t have a revenue problem, but a spending problem.”

Richard was one of several local politicians who were given five minutes each during Monday’s Bayou Industrial Group luncheon to discuss the agenda for the upcoming legislative session and the things they want to focus on during the session. The delegation also included Rep. Joe Harrison (R-Napoleonville), Rep. Gordon Dove (R-Houma), state Sen. Norby Chabert (R-Houma), state Sen. Bret Allain (R-Jeanerette), state Sen. Gary Smith (R-Gonzales) and state Sen. Troy Brown (D-Paincourtville). All seven delegation members at the event took time to touch upon the state budget shortfall, cuts to healthcare and higher education and Gov. Bobby Jindals’s proposed tax plan. Each had several issues, ranging from road construction and coastal restoration to capital outlay and the state’s prison system, on their agendas.

Getting rid of one-time funds and reducing the state’s number of consulting contracts, two issues that Richard voted in favor of but which never made it all the way through the legislative process, are hot-button issues Richard plans to concentrate on this session.

“We have $250 million in one-time funds and 19,000 consulting contracts,” Richard said. “We will try to get the bill for a 10 percent reduction in consulting contracts passed. We could save half a billion dollars right there and give it to higher education or health care.”

Another of Richard’s quests is to establish transparency in the Governor’s office.

“I introduced a bill last week to give transparency to public records in the governor’s office,” he said. “It’s an uphill battle, but it is time to have it. The bill will also organize and archive the documents. It will level the playing field with the legislative branch.”

Richard also discussed the Governor’s proposed income tax changes, which he is in favor of.

“The governor said he would talk to each individual legislator about the tax plan, but we have not spoken yet,” Richard said. “It’s a great concept that I voted for years ago that would have been phased in over a 10-year period but, before we get rid of income tax, show me where we will swap the money from and it better not be with a sales tax.”

High education and healthcare are two spots where Richard does not want to see any more cuts in spending.

“Funding higher education is critical, and it needs to be a priority,” Richard said. “I wanted to have a special session to discuss the cuts at Chabert, but that didn’t happen and they are building a new hospital in Baton Rouge. They said the session would have been a waste of money, but don’t get me started (on the subject of) wasted money.”

Like Richard, Dove also does not want to see higher education or healthcare take any more cuts, but he was in favor or spending one-time funds.

“I don’t want to have to cut services so that we don’t have to spend the money,” Dove said.

Dove, who is the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, was the only member of the delegation to discuss coastal restoration and the environment.

“Coastal restoration in Lafourche Parish is moving forward,” Dove said. “Projects near Caminada Pass have restored 246 acres, six linear miles, of coast. We have also fixed barrier islands and ridges near Pointe Aux Chenes.”

Future projects Dove will put his backing to include the lock system on Houma Navigational Canal, the Bayou Chene Floodgate and for the North Lafourche Levee District to receive $15 million from the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. Dove also commended local politicians on their environmental efforts.

“Terrebonne Parish President Michel Claudet and Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph are pushing and moving forward on sewage issues in the parishes,” Dove said. “The Department of Environmental Quality has helped out with these projects by awarding grants.”

Harrison highlighted the state’s burgeoning prison system as one of his primary concerns this legislative session.

“We have the largest number of incarcerated people not just the country, but in the world,” Harrison said. “This will eat up the solutions to every other budget problem we solve if we don’t fix the prison system budget.”

“We need to have a special session and get a proactive budget for needs of the state,” Harrison said. “The state pension system is $20 million in the red with millions in interest. We need to add more equity to the system. With the income tax issue, I will stand back and wait on this one. We need to look at what other states are doing, but I think the solution should be revenue-neutral.”

“We also need to take a look at our university system,” he said. “The cost of TOPS keeps increasing. I would like to see TOPS capped and academic requirements increased. We are losing tens of millions each year on students that go to college, don’t complete 12 hours each semester and drop out.”

Like Harrison, Smith would also like to see a revenue-neutral solution to the state’s budget woes.

“The budget is the top issue for me this session,” Smith said. “This could be a big session. We may rewrite the way the way we collect revenue. We have a real deficit with real numbers. We are $ 1.3 billion short. We have had five years of major events and reductions, a sluggish economy and no money reimbursed to the state because of from hurricanes. We have seen 10 years of tax reduction. The governor knows where he wants to go but he’s not sure how to get there.”

Smith’s primary concern in the state’s budget is the capital outlay budget.

“We are at our limit,” Smith said. “There are $700 million in capital outlay projects going on out there right now. We have four months of operating money left. What are we going to do, stop progress? We can change the spending limit with a two-thirds vote, but we need more cash in that account.”

Allain was also concerned about the capital outlay issue and what the cash shortage could mean for the LA Highway 20 extension project near Thibodaux.

“Hopefully we can fix the problem,” Allain said. The Department of Transportation and Development LA Highway 20 project in Thibodaux is back on schedule thanks to Norby and Dee. Mayor Tommy Eschete also has also been a big help with the project.”

In addition to the completion of the LA Highway 20 extension, Allain is also focused on the completion of Interstate 49 from Lafayette to New Orleans.

“I promised I would move this project as far as I could during my term,” Allain said. “I met with chambers in Lafayette and Lake Charles to form a group modeled after the LA Highway 1 Coalition. We need to identify problems, talk to communities, find funding sources and form a huge coalition that can’t be ignored.”

Brown was focused on the proposed roadway that could bring a route between New Orleans and Baton Rouge closer to the Tri-parish area.

“It’s called the West Bank Connector project,” Brown said. “It would link LA Highway 3127 in Boutte to Donaldsonville and tie into LA Highway 1 to us and link Lafourche Parish at LA Highway 20 to LA Highway 3127. By building elevated roads, Chackbay would be connected to Vacherie.”

Brown was the only legislative delegate to bring up the Affordable Healthcare Act and also voiced his concern for the state’s public healthcare system.

“This act will add 400,000 people to the 800,000 people in the state who are already uninsured,” Brown said. “With the recent public-private partnership with Chabert, I’m worried that Louisiana State University is coming out of healthcare completely.”

Chabert was the last of the delegates to speak..

“Well, that covers everything I was going to talk about, so see you at the BIG banquet in March,” Chabert said, laughing. “We have a tough session ahead of us, but we have had tough ones before. There is so much gray area in the governor’s tax plan. We have concept and want to attract businesses but don’t want to hurt the businesses that are already here.”

Rep. Joe Harrison (R-Napoleonville), Rep. Gordon Dove (R-Houma), state Sen. Norby Chabert (R-Houma), state Sen. Bret Allain (R-Jeanerette), state Sen. Gary Smith (R-Gonzales) and state Sen. Troy Brown (D-Paincourtville), not pictured, spoke at Monday’s Bayou Industrial Group Meeting. All seven delegation members at the event took time to touch upon the state budget shortfall, cuts to healthcare and higher education and Gov. Bobby Jindals’s proposed tax plan.