Despite budget challenges and other hurdles the state is currently facing, Gov. John Bel Edwards said he remains "extremely optimistic" about Louisiana's future half-way through his first term in office.
"I can unequivocally state that we have made tremendous progress over the course of the year in stabilizing state government and making sure that we are more adequately and responsibly funding critical priorities," Edwards said during a year-end news conference on Wednesday. "We're seeing tangible benefits on every front from those efforts."
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Edwards, a Democrat who took office in January 2016, is running for re-election in 2019 against yet-to-be-determined opponent or opponents. Several Louisiana Republicans are eyeing the possibility of taking back the Governor's Mansion in a deeply conservative state.
But Edwards is rounding out 2017 focusing on the positive:
- Unemployment figures are at their lowest since May 2008.
"I've often said and always believed that the very best social program is a job, and the only thing that beats a job is a career," Edwards said. "We're working on both fronts."
- More than 456,000 adults have health care coverage through the state's expansion of Medicaid -- one of Edwards' first actions undertaken as governor.
"The same Catholic Christian faith that leads me to be prolife on abortion also leads me to be prolife on Medicaid expansion," he said.
- The state appears on track to go a full year without a mid-year budget deficit for the first time in nearly a decade.
"For the first time in a decade, higher education was saved from cuts compared to the previous year and we also fully funded the TOPS program," Edwards said.
But Edwards is also staring down another significant challenge.
He says he will decide by Jan. 19, when he releases his executive budget recommendation, whether to call a special session in February to address the $1 billion-plus shortfall Louisiana faces in the coming budget cycle when temporary tax measures expire on June 30.
Edwards and lawmakers haven't yet reached an agreement on how to shore up the state's finances, with House Republicans pushing for more as-yet undefined spending cuts, while Edwards has called for the elimination of some tax credits and exemptions and condensing the state's income brackets.
"I will be as flexible as i can be and as open minded as i can be in order to be successful," he said.
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