The wins for northwest Louisiana were touted Wednesday at the Northwest Louisiana Legislative Summit at the CenturyLink Center.
Hosted by the Bossier Chamber of Commerce along with its regional partners — the Greater Minden Chamber of Commerce, Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce, Shreveport-Bossier African American Chamber and North Louisiana Economic Partnership — the summit provided a wrap-up of the 2019 legislative session with a panel session featuring State Sen. Barrow Peacock, Sen. Ryan Gatti, Rep. Wayne McMahen, Rep. Larry Bagley, and Rep. Thomas Carmody, moderated by the Council for a Better Louisiana President and CEO Barry Erwin.
“Look back to the past legislative session and look ahead to the future because this is an election year and it’s an opportunity to point the needle forward,” Erwin said.
Panelists discussed topics of great importance to Louisiana: Tax Reform, Education, Infrastructure and Criminal Justice. Gov. John Bel Edwards gave the keynote address, focusing on major wins for the state, and, specifically, northwest Louisiana.
Rep. Carmody discussed the accomplishments with education issues in Louisiana, particularly when it comes to his experience of serving on the House education committee for two terms.
“We wanted to make sure we had an impact in elevating children’s opportunities in this state. We’re in a 21st Century world where you have to have the skills employers want. Those businesses that I brought into the community have said how difficult it is to find employees up to a standard where they didn’t have to retrain them on basic skills,” he said.
Rep. McMahen said that for Louisiana to reach its potential, education is going to be key.
“Things I’ve noticed in my career and working with high school students, that’s the time they’re going to make a decision about what they’re going to do. You have to show those kids the opportunities that are out there for them,” he said. “We have a great community and technical college system that is a great opportunity for them.”
Sen. Gatti said everyone is realizing that education is a pipeline all the way from childhood education to a PhD, saying, “When we invest in K-12, it moves children from poverty to prosperity in 13 short years. It’s amazing what we’re seeing in higher education, and it has the attention of the legislature. I think you’re going to see us invest money in that area because you get a huge return on that investment.”
Sen. Peacock said he would like to see the legislature revisit a failed constitutional amendment that would allow state colleges and universities to set their own tuition rate.
“We’re one of the few states that sets tuition at the legislative level. We do not be need to be setting tuition at the state level, that needs to be done at the board level,” he said.
Rep. Carmody said he’s in favor, explaining, “If we were to fundamentally the change the way we operate in the state, that is the mechanism to do it. There’s some things you can look at that Louisiana does, that in the 21st Century doesn’t make much sense anymore.”
Sen. Gatti explained that changing the constitution might not solve all the issues.
“When I was running, there was discussion about a constitutional convention. So, I pulled out the state constitution and I would ask different groups what they would want to change in it. The big money is the MFP and supplemental pay. In my district, we rely on the MFP, that’s how you move children from poverty to prosperity,” Sen. Gatti said.
He said the discussion has since evolved into the state’s structural problem about how it collects tax dollars.
“The middle class and small businesses are the ones that are squeezed,” Sen. Gatti said. “We can’t continue to give payouts to the poor and bailouts to the top. If we can’t solve that, a constitutional convention won’t do any good,”
He added that’s why a sales tax was seen as the most fair option, saying, “Illegal immigrants pay it, rich people pay it. Not everyone pays a property tax.”
Pension and retirement system
Sen. Peacock equated reforming and reviewing the state’s 13 retirement systems to slowly turning around “huge oil tankers.”
“I hope to see traction (on pension and retirement system). A few years ago we had a good bill to reform LASERS for state employees that would have been a new retirement system for today’s workforce. People are not staying 40 years at the same position. Unfortunately, it was not embraced,” he said. “We do need to address pension reform. We don’t want someone to be handicapped to a job, we need a hybrid type plan.”
Rep. Bagley said that his goal since year one as a legislator is to see the completion of I-49. He said that when the $700 million state infrastructure bill emerged as a way to get that done, he sought the help of Sen. Peacock.
“That is a must. We must get that done. When it went through the House, I called Senator Peacock and told him we needed help. He is concerned about Jimmie Davis Bridge, but we have money in Capital Outlay for the bridge. No one is going to help I-49,” Rep. Bagley said. “As long as I’m there, Senator Peacock and I are going to get I-49 done one way or another.”
Sen. Peacock then asked Gov. Edwards for his help to complete I-49.
“I-49 and Jimmie Davis Bridge are both important. We shouldn’t have to pick one or the other. We need your help, Governor Edwards and (DOTD) Secretary (Shawn) Wilson. If we can work together, with Gov. Edwards’ help and help from our congressional delegation, we can complete Jimmie Davis Bridge and I-49. That will connect our community and benefit the whole state of Louisiana,” Sen. Peacock said.
Sen. Gatti also thanked Gov. Edwards and the local delegation for their support of building a new entrance to Barksdale Air Force Base off I-20/220 in Bossier City.
“We always hear about how no one works together and along party lines it’s a MMA fight. But everyone signed off on that being a priority project,” said Sen. Gatti. “And, Governor Edwards supported it.”