Gov. John Bel Edwards has set out on an ambitious plan for the three-month legislative session that started this week.
Among the priorities he outlined during his State of the State address on Monday: He wants to pump more money into transportation projects like passenger trains and bridges, get Medicaid expansion off the ground without lawmakers throwing up major hurdles, bolster school autonomy, raise the minimum wage and pass a measure to require equal pay for women.
But perhaps the biggest test Edwards faces heading into his first regular legislative session: Whether he’s able to unify a legislative body that has shown itself to be increasingly vulnerable to divisive partisanship and under the threat of splintering under the weight of yet another looming budget crisis.
Edwards, a Democrat who took office Jan. 11, expressed optimism that he can work with the GOP-controlled Legislature and prevent the state from falling into partisan gridlock that has mired the federal government.
Louisiana is, after all, different, Edwards said.
“We live in parishes, not counties. We spend our holidays throwing beads at people lining the street. We cook differently. We speak differently. We spell differently. There is no place in the country that compares to Louisiana,” Edwards said. “As we work together to solve our state’s problems, let’s continue marching to the beat of our own drum and not Washington, D.C.’s.”
Edwards, who spent eight years as a state legislator before winning the governor’s job in the fall, faced his first major legislative defeat before taking office earlier this year when the state House rejected his pick for House speaker, bucking a Louisiana tradition that had given previous governors an unusual sway over the legislative body.
Just five days ago, the Legislature ended a contentious, 25-day special session on the budget — leaving an $800 million deficit for the coming year and an as-yet-to-be-determined hole in the budget that ends June 30.
Edwards’ special session agenda was only partially approved — major parts of it in the final minutes of the session — leaving the impact still uncertain several days after its end. During a news conference shortly before the special session’s end, Edwards had expressed frustration over legislative leaders who couldn’t deliver votes on key bills. Lawmakers spent much of Wednesday — the final day of the budget session — holed up in private negotiations while the clock winded down.
On Monday, Edwards emerged more diplomatic, alluding to his own frustration with former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration while he served in the Legislature.
“It was a tough special session and it’s going to be a tough regular session,” Edwards said during a news conference after his State of the State speech. “I know what it’s like to be asked to do something by a governor that you don’t agree with.
“My frustration really was with a relatively small number of legislators who refused to either vote for revenue or identify cuts that they would stand by.”
Edwards’ largely populist message was intermittently met with applause, but the nearly 30-minute address offered few major rally points and came across as more somber.
“Stabilizing the budget must remain our top priority, but setting Louisiana on a more prosperous trajectory also requires focusing on policies that will move our state and our people forward,” Edwards said. “This isn’t about Republicans, Democrats or Independents — rural areas or urban areas. Let’s work together as Louisianians.”
He touted efforts to expand the Medicaid health care program, improve the state’s infrastructure, increase the minimum wage and make pay more equitable among men and women.
“As we begin this regular session, let’s get back on track,” Edwards said. “Let’s make the most of the time we have here to improve our state. The people of Louisiana are demanding that of us, and they certainly deserve it.”
Edwards reflected on his own time in the Louisiana House and how he entered the chamber nine years ago hopeful that lawmakers could work across party lines to improve the state.
“I have begun my first year as governor with the same hope — except now it is an expectation,” he said.
Edwards said he became frustrated “over the unwillingness to set aside personal political agendas for the good of our state” during his time in the Legislature.
“After eight years of service in this chamber, I decided to run for governor to make sure Louisiana gets back to working for the people, not political parties,” Edwards said.
The speech stood in contrast to former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s often upbeat and business-focused State of the State speeches.
State Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, said Edwards touched on some issues that appeal to every one — particularly transportation and local controls for schools.
“But he listed a number of policy proposals that will meet resistance, beginning with Medicaid expansion,” Johnson said. “His plan to raise the minimum wage will cause heated debate. You can’t increase the financial burden on small businesses right on the heels of tax increases.”
Rep. Kenny Havard, R-Jackson, said he felt that Edwards’ speech was “Sandbox 101.”
“Everyone needs to learn to work together,” Havard said. “We’re slowly heading down the road of Washington-style gridlock. I don’t think the people of Louisiana want that.”
Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, echoed that hope that Louisiana won’t fall into a D.C.-style partisan trap.
“He said all the right things. He let us know that we’re still in bad financial shape,” he said. “We have to work together. Washington-style politics is not the way to go.”
For his part, Edwards only lightly castigated lawmakers for the budget challenges that weren’t addressed.
“Much progress was made, but not enough,” he said. “Both the process and the final result were lacking. Too many refused to either vote for new revenue or to identify budget cuts to close the gaps as we are required to do.”
Some legislators already have begun to push back against Edwards’ plan to expand Medicaid through the federal Affordable Care Act. Several bills have been filed that would require co-payments or another layer of legislative oversight in expansion. During the special session, several members of the House changed their votes on a bill to vote against a measure they said they felt endorsed expansion.
In his speech, Edwards expressed an openness to some reform efforts.
“We can improve our Medicaid program and require personal responsibility for health by charging co-pays, providing premium assistance, requiring work referrals and promoting healthy behaviors,” he said. “We save money, promote individual responsibility and achieve better health outcomes.”