SULPHUR — District 33 House seat candidates Les Farnum and incumbent Rep. Stuart Moss, and Mike Reese, candidate for District 30 Senate, answered a series of questions Thursday at a forum, the second of two hosted by the Chamber SWLA, at the Holiday Inn in Sulphur.

All candidates for District 27, 30 and 33 seats were invited to the forum. District 27 Senator Ronnie Johns is running unopposed. Reese is running against Democrat James Armes and Republicans Brett Geymann and Renee Hoffpauir-Klann. The election is set for Oct. 12.

The candidates were given one minute to answer questions posed by the Chamber SWLA’s President and CEO George Swift and Policy VP Eric Cormier, and Brian Trahan, Editor of the Southwest Daily News.

What is your definition of economic development?

When asked to define economic development, Moss said it is the promotion of the region he serves. He said he aims to make the district more business friendly, believes the corporate franchise tax should be discontinued, wants to offer more business incentives and address infrastructure. “We’re in the biggest boom in the country, and we need to capitalize on that,” he said. “We need to make sure our people are going to work and we’re not bringing everybody in from out of state.”

Farnum defined economic development as “a mixture between residents and businesses being successful.” He said the success of every resident depends on successful businesses. “It’s up to the government to make the business climate as friendly as we can to get them here and keep them here,” he said.

“To me, economic development is all about making our state the most competitive,” said Reese.

He listed the second highest automobile insurance rates in the country, a litigious environment, lack of investment in infrastructure, and the reputation of poor public education outcomes as obstacles to becoming the most competitive.

What skills do you have to achieve a balanced budget?

Reese pointed to his experience as an employer who has to make payroll every week, his role on the board of a $300 million public health foundation and his role as a community banker in a $500 million community bank as preparation for the challenges of balancing the state budget.

Moss said running his family business for 35 years and paying his employees has given him valuable experience. “We don’t have the luxury of printing money,” he said. Moss said balancing the budget could be achieved by reorganizing some departments that he considers top heavy, like the Department of Transportation and Development. “Until we trim the fat and start running our state as a business, we will never get that (a balanced budget),” he said.

Farnum said his experience running a family business, his time as in lower, middle and senior management in local industries and his service on the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, working with a $200 million budget, has prepared him for balancing a budget.

What is your perspective on economic development incentives? Are there particular programs that you would look to protect or change? Do you support PILOT, Payment in Lieu of Taxes?

Moss said he is in favor of PILOT and noted that his seatmate in the House, Rep. Mark Abraham, sponsored the PILOT bill which came very close to passing. He explained that the program allows businesses to provide services to a municipality, such as building a new road instead of paying taxes, and then at some future time receive a tax exemption. Moss said he also supports the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, ITEP, but took issue with the way it was presented last session.

“I definitely support the ITEP and the PILOT program,” said Farnum. He said one of the biggest problems with infrastructure projects is the cost requires waiting until you have sufficient funds or doing a revenue bond. “Payment in Lieu of Taxes is a great program. You can get your infrastructure right now.”

Reese said he supports both programs as well. “We have to give our economic developers the maximum amount of tools at their disposal to do the work they need to do to be competitive,” he said.

If elected, what would you do to support the I-10 Calcasieu River Bridge project?

Farnum said he doesn’t believe there needs to be a toll bridge. “We’ve misused funds,” he said. “Prioritization of funds is key to the whole thing. Right now we have to come up with about $550 million to get our half of the matching fund to draw federal dollars,” he said. “Prioritization of funds is what I would work on.”

Moss said it is important to determine if President Donald Trump intended the funding split to be 90/10 when he promised to get the bridge built in his recent visit. “The 90/10 is what we’re hoping for,” he said. “Then we can shift funds throughout DOTD to match what we need to build the bridge. We have to quit kicking the can down the road before we lose industry or have a tragedy.”

“All of the Louisiana budget is nothing but a set of priorities,” said Reese. He said if he gets to Baton Rouge, he’ll reevaluate the budget to make sure “we’re prioritizing our investment in things like infrastructure.”

What are the three most pressing issues in your district?

According to Moss, infrastructure, education and workforce investment are the three issues that require the most attention in District 33.

Moss pegged the replacement of the Calcasieu River Bridge as the most pressing infrastructure project. “The bridge is causing the most heartache,” he said. “We know of companies that are going up and around I-10. They’re not even coming this direction. They don’t want the insurance costs, they don’t want the liability. They know that we have very, very poor roads and they know that we have very, very poor infrastructure.” Moss said education in the state requires some changes, most importantly, he said, teachers should be given the freedom to teach, instead of constantly testing. He also stressed the continuation of training the local workforce.

Farnum also listed infrastructure as the top concern. “The infrastructure in out state is probably 30 years in arrears on what we need to do,” he said. “Education is absolutely another priority. I’ve spoken with numerous teachers and they all ask, ‘How do we teach the kids what they need to know so they can get where they need to go?’. Testing them over and over and overs not the answer.”

Farnum listed taxes and drainage as ties for third place. “People need to be relieved from their tax burden,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, they don’t have any money to spend.”

“And with drainage, we have to get the state to work closer with local government — all the entities coming together — because their are too many hurdles to cross to get the water to flow  to the south,” he said.

Reese also listed infrastructure and education as the top two priorities in District 30. He put economic development in the third slot. “Infrastructure is a priority and will continue to be a priority in our state,” he said. “No. 2 has got to be education. We cannot continue to have the same national reputation we have and expect to grow our economy in Louisiana and attract people to out state.” Reese said infrastructure and education feed into economic development. “All of Senate District 30 does not enjoy the same kind of economic development opportunities that exist in the southwest region of our state,” he said. “In Louisiana, we have got to start focusing on the rebirth of the rural economy — making it more competitive by a more competitive tax rate.”

Louisiana’s Auto insurance rates are the second highest in the nation — partly due to our current legal climate. Do you support tort reform as a means to lowering our auto insurance rates?

Reese said during his two hour trip to the forum from Leesville, he noticed that every billboard but one featured a trial attorney threatening to sue a trucking company. He said in reports he receives from the business and industry he courts, that the litigious climate in the state is a major deterrent to their locating here. “It’s not all about the trial attorneys,” he said. “There are other reforms within the law that we need to make for more competition in the insurance market, as well,” he said.

Farnum said that auto insurance rates are having an adverse affect on businesses in the state. “For the state to become economically viable and to keep the businesses here, we have to control that,” he said. “It’s a real simple equation. We either clean it up or we’re not going to have a state to live in.”

Moss said he also supports tort reform. He reported that there are 43 billboards for one trial attorney on the interstate between Sulphur and Baton Rouge, which costs the attorney approximately $2 million a month. “There are too many class action suits,” he said. “If you are jut in an accident, you deserve to be made whole — not be given astronomical sums of money.” Additionally, Moss said insurance rates must come down.

What type of legislation would you propose to support small businesses in urban and rural areas?

Farnum said he would would work toward a more business friendly environment and a more level playing field for all residents. But he said he would require more time to think about specific policies before stating them publicly. “I tend to think unintended consequences are the root of all evil,” he said.

Moss said he views the Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, which has been used by the City of Sulphur to attract business, would be a good tool to help urban and rural areas. “But there is no one blanket that would apply to everyone,” he said. “We need to take it area by area.” He said it would require a joint effort among the state, parishes and local municipalities to implement strategies that would keep businesses in the state.

“Small, independent businesses are vitally important to the economy across Senate District 30,” said Reese. “And those businesses are never going to get an ITEP or a PILOT. But they are equally important when it comes to employing people. What we have to do is make them more competitive. They’re working, in many cases, with very small margins. “We have to have a more competitive tax structure in Louisiana that recognizes how they contribute to our economy.”

What is your position on a Constitutional Convention? Do you believe Louisiana needs a major constitutional change or not? What parts of the Constitution would you seek to update?

“We rank on the bottom of every good list and on the top of every bad list,” said Reese. He said it’s time to put everything on the table — even a constitutional convention.” He said the state’s constitution is too large, bulky and complex and isn’t serving the state’s residents well. “I’m not for opening it up to anything,” he said. I think that’s risky. If it could be managed properly, I would support that.”

Farnum said he would support a limited convention. “But if we open the whole box, it may be too big to get the lid back on,” he said. “Seventy-five percent of our state’s budget is either statutorily or constitutionally protected. That’s why at the end of the day all you ever hear about budget cuts are health care, education and basic services.” Farnum said underneath the blanket of protections are “agencies that don’t even exist anymore in ways that we would even know what they are.”

Moss said it would be very risky to have a constitutional convention be open to all topics, but there are also legal challenges in attempting to limit the convention. He said a convention would need to be held in a controlled manner. And issues like legal control and who would be appointed to oversee the process would need to be hammered out beforehand. “But we do have to get in there and do some type of revamping of this,” he said. “The constitution has had things added and added and added and nothing has ever been deleted.”

Farnum, a Sulphur resident, is a former business owner with 41 years of experience in engineering, maintenance and construction. He served on the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury for 11 years. He and his wife Karen have four children and three grandchildren.

Moss, a Sulphur resident who won the Nov. 6, 2018, special election for the seat vacated by Sulphur Mayor Mike Danahay, owns SSRM Credit Services, which he has run for the past 35 years.

Prior to his election, he served as a councilman on the Sulphur City Council for 12 years. He and his wife Ginger have four sons and two grandchildren.

Reese is involved in trucking, warehousing, commercial air charter and commercial real estate development across Vernon, Beauregard and Calcasieu parishes. He was a founding member and chairman of Fort Polk Progess, an organization that works with regional, state and federal partners to support soldiers and their families. He and his wife Morgan have two children.

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