WATSON – Livingston Parish residents still reeling from the flood that destroyed so many of their homes in August lined the tables in Live Oak High School’s cafeteria Tuesday to ask U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy about flood relief, while others at the town hall sought answers to some of the issues roiling national politics since the election of a new president.
The national questions — on the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), President Donald Trump’s tax returns, Russia and a host of civil rights issues, among others — will continue to follow Cassidy as he holds four other town halls this week, starting in Metairie on Wednesday afternoon.
The town hall Tuesday was billed as a flood relief meeting – a fact that several protest groups in the area noted in asking their members not to disrupt the forum.
Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks began the town hall by telling the crowd of about 250 people that only questions on that topic would be addressed, eliciting boos from some in the audience.
Attendees had been told before the meeting to write their questions, whatever the topic, on index cards and give them to the senator’s staff.
Cassidy quickly interjected that he would take questions on other topics as well and spent much of his 15-minute introduction to the hour-long meeting discussing a handful of non-flood issues, including mental health care for veterans, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act and bringing jobs back to the United States.
The senator touted his plan to replace the Affordable Care Act with tax credit-funded health savings accounts, saying one of its key features is that it would transfer power from Washington, D.C., to patients and the state.
Cassidy also praised President Trump’s goals of bringing back manufacturing jobs and building new pipelines, both of which the senator said would “create jobs for good people who have been left out for the past eight years.”
On flood relief, Cassidy said the challenge for Louisiana will be to ensure federal grants are spent “efficiently, effectively and honestly.” He referred more-specific questions to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Small Business Administration representatives on-hand at the back of the room.
The senator also advocated for the Comite Diversion project to move forward, arguing that a “systems-wide approach” will be needed to help mitigate against future flooding in the river basin.
Cassidy bounced between selected audience questions on both flood-related and other topics, including one on whether the senator believes President Trump should release his tax returns – a question that drew applause from many in attendance.
“Looks like we have some folks who don’t like Donald Trump in here. A lot of us do,” Cassidy replied, drawing applause from another group. “You know, I think the president should put his tax returns out there. I’m for transparency. Obviously, it’s complicated. I can’t particularly put pressure on him to do that. But nonetheless, for what it’s worth, I think it would be a good thing.”
Roseland resident Rheta Barnes, who had posed a similar question in one of her four submitted comment cards, said after the meeting that she was unimpressed with Cassidy’s response.
“It was a bunch of words that didn’t add up to ‘I’m going to do something concrete about it,’” Barnes said. “I want him to sponsor a bill or do whatever he can to ensure we see those returns and that (President Trump) is not self-dealing.”
Barnes and others held up signs during the meeting — despite a sign on the entrance door prohibiting signs from attendees at the forum — urging Cassidy to “Support the ACA” and to “Dump Trump.”
The signs, as well as the booing at some of Cassidy’s responses, drew the ire of Denham Springs residents Jim and Bridgette Gilbert, who said Tuesday’s town hall was not the time for protests.
“We lost everything in the flood, and you want to jump on him about Trump’s taxes? Do that somewhere else,” Bridgette Gilbert said. “I couldn’t care less about his damn taxes right now. I just got walls last week and have two teenagers who start putting everything up, worried about another flood, every time the rain falls. Most of the people in this room lost everything, and we just want our life back.”
Pam Trowbridge, a Baton Rouge member of the Indivisible protest movement who did not attend the Watson town hall, said she and other members of her group agreed the forum should not be disrupted.
“We made the choice to respect our neighbors, family and friends who had flooding issues,” Trowbridge said, adding that other groups like Pantsuit Nation made the same decision. “The one in Metairie will be different. He may think he has dodged a bullet, but he has not.”
Follow Heidi Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.