By Crystal Stevenson
LAKE CHARLES, La (American Press) - Lake Charles native and Barbe High School graduate Sharon Hewitt said she brings a different set of skills to the table in her race for Louisiana’s next governor.
The Republican state senator, who is based in Slidell and represents District 1, spoke with the American Press editorial board via phone to share her vision of what the state could become under her leadership.
“I come from an energy background and no one is going to navigate the energy business and protect energy jobs better than I will,” she said. “I have a legislative background; not everyone in the race has served in the Legislature. I’ve been on the finance committee. I know the budget, I know where the money is, I know which agencies are performing well and which ones have challenges and what the opportunities are to correct those. I’ve been a volunteer for many years. I’ve been the PTA president more times than I can count and received the National Lifetime PTA Achievement Award because of the work that I did, which has been very consistent with my legislative work — focusing on technology jobs, better curriculum and higher standards for our students.”
As a wife, mother and now grandmother, Hewitt said she understands the difficulties families are facing with balancing their budgets when they’re looking at $5 now for a dozen eggs. “Families are having to walk away from their homes because they can’t afford it,” she said. “The high cost of insurance, mortgages, interest rates, flood insurance, I understand all that and I understand the heartache when your sons move away from the state of Louisiana after being born and raised here because they can’t find opportunities in Louisiana in their chosen fields.” Hewitt said all of those things have helped prepare her to lead the state.
“I bring a different set of skills and I think it’s exactly the set of skills Louisiana needs at this point in our history.”
Individual and corporate income taxes have already been reduced and the 0.45 sales tax increase of 2018 goes off the books in 2025. Hewitt said she plans to reduce taxes even more.
“What we did last year in the Legislature and with the constitutional amendment our citizens passed put our state on a path to get to zero state income tax,” she said. “Most people don’t even realize that that’s what we did. We lowered the tax bracket on personal income tax from 6 percent, 4 percent, 2 percent to 4.25 percent as the top bracket and the other two were adjusted down also. Then we put a trigger in the law that says in years of exceptional revenue — and it defines how that is determined — that we would automatically reduce the tax brackets down and they can never go back up. The idea and the goal and what people don’t seem to realize is we are committed in the state of Louisiana to getting to a zero state income tax.” She said legislation approved by lawmakers and voters to do just that kicks in this year.
“Personal state income tax is a $4 billion line item in the state budget; the state’s part of the budget is around $20 billion, the federal piece of it is $20 billion. A $4 billion hit to a $20 billion state-funded budget is a significant piece so we couldn’t do that in one fell swoop. We had to do it step by step in a prudent way.” Something else she’d like to fix if elected governor is the state’s complicated tax code.
“Part of the problem with political solutions is that you kind of just Band-Aid over what was previously bad tax policy and just keep Band-Aiding over it,” she said. “We really need to be able to take it to a clean slate. One of the solutions that has been talked about a lot that I support is holding a constitutional convention that allows you to basically look at all the different ways that we fund government and look at not only simplifying our tax code but also restructuring the relationship between state and local government in terms of how they are funded and how decisions are made. We need to be able to push more authority toward local governments and provide opportunities for them to raise their own revenue so that everything doesn’t have to funnel through Baton Rouge.” Hewitt said Louisiana’s tax code is complicated because the state generally has higher tax rates that are often offset to make the state more competitive with hundreds of tax exemptions and credits.
“What happens is when site selectors look at our state, compare us to other states and look for places to relocate businesses or establish a corporate headquarters, they put just a big question mark next to Louisiana when they’re trying to evaluate that company’s forward-looking tax liability because it’s so complicated and it’s very difficult to predict. We have to flip off the Band-Aids and look at all the different ways both state and local government is funded so that we can level the playing field a little bit and make our state more attractive to businesses and families.” Hewitt said the state has been spending a lot of one-time money on infrastructure and it’s something she would like to continue. “When you look at roads, bridges, ports and airports, our wish list and needs are not fully funded,” Hewitt said. “That’s a great way to invest one-time dollars because we have such a backlog and those things are creating jobs, which helps rev up the economic engine. I’d like to see some more investments in courts, and I’d like to see us focus on smaller, locally owned bridges.”
Hewitt said there are thousands of bridges around the state that need to be repaired or replaced before they get to the point that they’re unsafe and need to be shut down. Case in point: the Interstate 10/Calcasieu River bridge. “That bridge is important to me because I grew up in Lake Charles,” she said. “I’ve been driving on that bridge for a very long time. When I got my driver’s license, the crowning achievement on the last day of class was to drive over that bridge without having a heart attack.” She said there aren’t many routes to get across a body of water so bridge closures cause families and the trucking industry to make 30- or 40-mile detours to find alternate routes.
Hewitt said the best way to grow the state economy is to provide better and higher-paying jobs. “You reduce your taxes, you increase the high-paying jobs and the secret sauce to doing that is to have a more educated workforce — one that has the skills that the businesses in our state need,” she said. “When you have a company like Boeing tell me that they have 200 job openings that they cannot fill and they’re having to go to other states to fill those openings, that breaks my heart. We’re hearing those stories all around the state.” She said much of the work she has championed in the Legislature helps to address that, including establishing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) centers around the state. “The job of these centers is to connect the dots between what are the skills industries in that area need to make sure that our educational institutions are aligned so that we are providing the skills that students in Louisiana need so they can go to work with Louisiana companies and stay right here in our home state and businesses don’t have to look elsewhere for the talent that they need,” she said. Hewitt said she’s done a lot of work in providing alternate pathways in high school for students to concurrently earn a high school diploma along with an industry-based certification, apprenticeship or two-year degree. “They can go directly into the workforce upon graduation from high school, in many cases making $60,000 a year starting salary,” she said. “These are things not like the traditional welding and air conditioning repair like it was back in my day, but things like Cloud computing and computer coding and nursing and EMT — the kinds of opportunities that are being made available in many of our high schools. We have to prepare our workforce for the technology needs of the global economy and I’ve focused a lot on computer science and computer coding in our schools.” She said in Louisiana, only 30 percent of high schools offer computer science courses. In the states surrounding Louisiana, that number is 90 percent. “We’re falling behind,” she said. “Whether our students go into technology fields or not, everybody needs a basic understanding of technology these days to just survive on an everyday basis.” Hewitt said she’s also passionate about literacy, citing half of Louisiana’s third-graders are reading below that grade level when they move on to fourth grade. “If we could do one thing and only one thing in education it should be to teach our kids to read,” she said. “We need to be acting like our hair’s on fire on this issue.” Louisiana State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said Hewitt’s Reading Education Savings Account Program legislation, which was passed last year, was the “most significant literacy bill in recent history.” The law creates an account for parents of students struggling to read to use to improve their child’s education outside of the public school system. Students who are not reading at grade level by second or third grade would be eligible for the accounts funded with the per-pupil state allotment for qualified education expenses, which include tuition, fees, textbooks, instructional or tutoring services, curriculum, and technological devices. She also championed a bill the year before that requires public schools to create and develop a literary assessment for every K-3 student. It would be given within the first 30 days from the beginning of school, and the results would tell teachers and principals the percentage of students reading below, at or above grade level. If a student is found to be below the reading level for that grade, the school would have to notify the parent or guardian in writing within 15 days. The school would also have to provide the parent or guardian mid-year and end-of-the-year updates as well as suggest tools to use at home to increase the student’s reading level. “Many times, parents are caught off guard and don’t realize their child is behind,” Hewitt said. “If you are not reading by the time you leave third grade, you are destined for a lifetime of challenges. We don’t teach reading in the fourth grade, we’re assuming you know how to read and now you’re reading for comprehension to learn science and social study. We’re doing a huge disservice to our readers by not getting them reading long before the third grade.” Hewitt said in the upcoming legislation, she plans to take on the math challenges students face. “Our students are not where they should be performing on math skills, either, because we’ve gotten away from the basics,” she said. “We’re not teaching the basic addition and multiplication facts, for example. I think it’s time for us to take education and say, ‘We’ve had enough. We can’t just keep tweaking around the edges. We have to be completely committed to getting our kids where they need to be so they can compete in a global economy.’ ”
Hewitt, who earned a mechanical engineering degree from LSU and went on to become one of the first female executives in a major oil and gas company, said no one will be a stronger advocate for oil and gas jobs in Louisiana than her. Before becoming a legislator, Hewitt took charge of Shell’s central deepwater assets situated in the Gulf of Mexico, a division of more than 160 employees with a budget in excess of a quarter of a billion dollars a year. In that position, she said she oversaw roughly 10 percent of the oil production in the United States and was trusted with managing billions of dollars in assets. “Shell was the No. 1 company on the Fortune 500 list when I was there,” she said. “I say that because I learned my leadership skills with some of the best leaders in the world. I learned ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ from Stephen Covey himself. Not only was I given great opportunities for formal leadership training but also through the job that I was given and the opportunities that I had there. I started out as all new young engineers do on a drilling rig for a year. There weren’t women offshore. There were unique challenges because many people did not think that women belonged in the oil industry. Fast forward 20 years and I was managing Shell’s central deepwater Gulf of Mexico business.” Hewitt said her background makes her the best person to help Louisiana navigate and open its doors to other energy businesses. “There’s tremendous interest in our state, certainly in LNG,” she said. “I’ve done a lot to help fund some of the research required for other energy businesses in our four-year institutions so that Louisiana will be well-positioned to be an energy leader in all aspects of energy. Oil and gas is not going away and I’m going to stand up for Louisiana in fighting those bad policies coming from the federal government that will hurt Louisiana and will hurt jobs. There’s nothing more important to our state than being energy independent and not dependent on those countries that are bad actors or not friends of the United States and no one can do that like the state of Louisiana.”
CLICK HERE to watch Sharon Hewitt's announcement video.