State House hopefuls take aim at roads, K-12 education

John Dupont
Much talk in the District 71 House race is over infrastructure, including talks of a new Mississippi River Bridge.

Brandon Bergeron and incumbent Jeremy LaCombe both hail from Pointe Coupee Parish, but they knew the primary concern of West Baton Rouge constituents before they made their first campaign stops.

The increased traffic along La. 1 and Interstate 10 has made the arteries among the most congested in the entire state. It has also raised the ire of the area residents who rely on the thoroughfare for the daily commute to and from work.

LaCombe and Bergeron will vie for the District 71 seat in the Oct. 12 election. The winner will occupy the spot four years and will take office less than a year after an election to fill the vacancy upon former officeholder Major Thibaut who resigned to serve as Pointe Coupee Parish president.

The two candidates use I-10 frequently for trips to Baton Rouge, Port Allen, or areas along La. 1 South, and both say they can relate to the headaches of other commuters.

The issue dominated much of the discussion for LaCombe, who took office in March and must now seek the full four-year term. He worked with area lawmakers on HB 573, which includes funds for a connector route from La. 415 to La. 1 South, along with construction of a new Intracoastal Waterway bridge.

Bergeron and LaCombe agree that a new Mississippi River bridge would serve as the ultimate solution to the bottlenecks along La. 1 and I-10.

"The bridge is near and dear to all the residents along the Westbank," Bergeron said. "The concern is that if something happened, like an evacuation after a leak out of the plant, it would present a huge problem with only two lanes to get out of an area."

The demands for improved infrastructure top the list for the entire district, which includes most of West Baton Rouge, all of Pointe Coupee, a portion of north Iberville and West Feliciana, up to the Mississippi border.

"It's a major issue faced by everyone in the district," LaCombe said. "This is a very diverse district, with more agriculture in Pointe Coupee and more industry in West Baton Rouge, but the common bond is that people get on roads that aren't as quality as they should be."

Issues related to the state’s K-12 school system also rank high on the list for both candidates.

Bergeron, who served 12 years on the Pointe Coupee Parish School Board, said the state needs to close the gap between the national average on teacher salaries and put more focus on the overall quality of education.

The $1,000 per year pay raise Gov. John Bel Edwards recommended during this year's session marked a good start in that direction, LaCombe said.

"It's modest, but we needed to do it for those who educate our kids to show them we're trying to do what's right," he said. "Considering the issues with budget cuts over the last decade and the way Bobby Jindal treated educational institutions over the last 10 years, it was a big step forward."

The candidates believe their respective qualifications make them best suited to address the needs of their districts over the next four years.

Bergeron believes his 12 years on the Pointe Coupee Parish School Board give him an edge on how to tackle the challenges the K-12 system continues to face.

LaCombe said a win in the upcoming election would put him among the senior members – even after less than a year in office. He said the move could put in in a position of leadership on committees and allow him a significant role in the nomination of a House speaker for the next four years.