Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards got a warm welcome home to Tangipahoa Parish on Monday, with a standing ovation from some 460 business leaders at a combined Hammond, Amite and Ponchatoula chambers of commerce luncheon.

Introduced as “one of Tangipahoa’s favorite sons,” Edwards said the hardest speeches to give are those delivered in front of the people who know you best.

Edwards focused his remarks on “too many kids deciding they have to leave Louisiana” — a jumping-off point for discussing the damage done by years of cuts to higher education and a need to increase the state’s minimum wage and expand Medicaid.

Reiterating that “education is synonymous with opportunity,” Edwards said the state has done a poor job of preparing its students for workforce opportunities, even while focusing on bringing more jobs here.

Edwards noted that Southeastern Louisiana University, where the luncheon was held, had been dealt more than $42 million in budget cuts over the past eight years, resulting in increases to tuition and mandated fees for students.

“That is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “We just have to do better.”

Edwards said he’d like to return the state to providing half of universities’ funding, compared to the roughly 25 percent share the state provides today. He also set a goal of reaching 80 percent of the Southern regional average for state support of higher education over the next four years. The state’s current funding level is less than 60 percent of the regional average, he said.

Doing that will require scrubbing the state’s $25 billion budget, as well as increasing flexibility so that higher education and health care — which account for about 80 percent of the state’s $3 billion in undedicated funds — do not bear the brunt of cuts.

Edwards said the last time he was in front of a Tangipahoa crowd, he asked for their votes and their prayers. This time, he said, he was just asking for their prayers.

“I’m lightening the load by 50 percent,” he joked.

Advocate staff writer Heidi Kinchen contributed to this article.