Nearly six weeks into Gov. John Bel Edwards’ first legislative session, several items on his agenda are advancing at the State Capitol — items that weren’t embraced under the previous administration.
A pay equality bill that Edwards is backing is heading to the House after winning support in the Senate; his opponents have largely accepted the notion that the state will expand Medicaid in a matter of months; an effort is advancing through the Senate to increase the age that juveniles can be prosecuted as adults; and changes Edwards supports to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students are moving quickly through the legislative process.
Outside of the Legislature, Edwards just signed an executive order to bar discrimination against gay and transgender people.
Even though Republicans hold a solid majority in both chambers of the Legislature, it’s already a very different Louisiana with Edwards, a Democrat, at the helm instead of Republican Bobby Jindal.
“It’s going as well as can be expected,” Edwards said in an interview with The Advocate on Thursday. “I’m not down about anything.”
Edwards served as chairman of the Louisiana House Democratic Caucus for eight years before he was elected governor last fall.
He fended off a tough challenge from Republicans David Vitter, Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne, who went on to become Edwards’ chief budget architect. During the campaign, Edwards leaned on the more conservative areas of his background — he’s a former Army Ranger who opposes abortion rights — while also voicing support for more populist ideas like increasing the minimum wage.
A bill that would gradually increase the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour passed its first legislative hurdle last month after Edwards made a rare gubernatorial appearance to testify in favor of it. It now faces a review from the Senate Finance Committee.
Jason Doré, executive director of the Louisiana GOP, said that Edwards’ record three months into office has been too liberal. Shortly after taking office, Edwards called a 25-day special session that ended with lawmakers raising sales taxes to generate about $1 billion in revenue.
“I think he ran as a conservative Democrat, and he’s governing from the left,” Doré said. “His ideas are much more in line with (Democratic presidential candidates) Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders than any conservative.”
Jindal, who was elected governor for two terms, launched an unsuccessful campaign for president last year. The Legislature rarely strayed from his agenda. His opposition to any tax hikes that put him on the side of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, also marked the end of his tenure as the state fell into a cycle of budget shortfalls. He opposed measures like the minimum wage hike, and he supported efforts to carve out protections for people who oppose gay marriage, rather than the anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the state’s new governor — the only Democrat serving in statewide elected office in Louisiana and the lone Democratic governor in the Deep South.
Before he was even sworn into office, Edwards suffered his first major political setback when the Republican-controlled House bucked tradition and picked its own leader. In the past, Louisiana governors have wielded the unusual power of handpicking who they wanted to serve as House Speaker. Edwards wanted fellow Democrat Walt Leger III, of New Orleans, in that role. The chamber instead elected Republican Taylor Barras, of New Iberia, on a second round of voting.
Two hours later, Edwards took the oath of office on the Capitol steps with a speech that urged unity.
There have been plenty of setbacks since.
Edwards’ plan to temporarily increase the sales tax to generate more money was only approved in the final minutes of the special session. Despite that tax hike and others, the state still faces a $750 million gap in the budget that begins July 1 — so Edwards for the second time during his three months is publicly voicing support for increased revenue and stressing the state’s dire financial straits to an often skeptical public.
An actual plan to shore up the budget is likely months from being resolved. On Monday, Edwards made another personal appearance and presented his executive budget recommendation to the House Appropriations Committee. Governors traditionally send surrogates to handle numbers presentations.
Edwards wants to call a special session after the regular session ends in June so that lawmakers can raise even more tax revenue to plug the budget hole — a huge ask of lawmakers who have already been complaining about feeling maxed-out on taxes from the earlier special session. The Legislature is barred under state law from considering revenue-raising items during the current regular session.
On his legislative priorities during the regular session, several bills Edwards backed that would have curbed the growth of charter schools failed to make it out of the House and Senate education committees last week.
But during a recent meeting with reporters in his Capitol office, Edwards said he likes the pace of the regular session, compared to the condensed special session, and he said he is having ongoing discussions and meetings with legislators.
“I’m happy with where we are at this point,” he said.
Meanwhile, he has also taken time to speak to several groups and conferences — from the Public Affairs Research Council’s annual luncheon to this year’s Delta Sigma Theta Red & White party.
“I’ve remained engaged. I’m talking to everyone to work through differences and find common ground,” Edwards said.
He called his detractors “a very small percentage of folks.”
“Sometimes they get more attention than they deserve because they are noisy,” he said.
During the budget presentation, some committee members pushed back on Edwards’ plans.
House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, repeatedly expressed interest in figuring out a way to hold a second special session in the fall, after a budget task force makes its recommendations for structural overhauls.
Edwards said he’s calling on the task force to begin work on a plan that provides a “down payment” on comprehensive tax reform.
He said that group could offer up short-term ideas that the Legislature could approve this summer that would be consistent with more long-range goals “so that we are not doing something in June of this year and then undoing it next year.”
Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.