Is Louisiana witnessing Gov. John Bel Edwards version 2.0, or just old wine in a new bottle?
The Democratic governor who once lectured state citizens that they must pay more taxes was replaced during the first part of 2017 by an Edwards claiming he’ll shear expenditures to solve an outstanding budget deficit. The Edwards who appointed former Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Charlie Melancon, who subsequently turned the department into a dumpster fire by reversing Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s policies and crying for more money, has given way to one who canned Melancon in favor of former state Rep. Jack Montoucet, who reversed course. And the Edwards who blamed the state’s ills on Jindal recently hired as his chief of staff, taking over from retiring Ben Nevers, Bossier City native Mark Cooper, who cut his teeth in state government serving as a top Jindal aide.
The 2016 Edwards never could have won reelection, acting as if he had no clue that he would have to move to the political center to have any such chance, especially when the GOP-led Legislature had a different agenda that more often than not frustrated him. Apart from ideology, several disasters — both natural and man-caused — popped up to challenge Edwards’ leadership abilities (the latest being last week’s tornadoes that tore through south Louisiana).
If Edwards learned anything in his first year, he would understand that he simply could not play primarily to a leftist base. It's a constituency enamored by the myth that women generally receive unequal pay for equal work, and that blocks the schoolhouse door to deny children educational choice and thus the chance at a better life. This is also the group that cheered as the governor worked to raise sales and income tax increases designed to boost state revenues by 30 percent. Edwards might also learn from the cautionary example of the last chief executive from his party, the hapless former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, that he must competently manage crises.
Bringing aboard Cooper shows that Edwards gets it when it comes to successful administration of disaster relief, acknowledging how important that issue will be over the next three years. And Edwards’ decision not to seek new taxes in trying to close successive $300 million-plus shortfalls in the past four months might indicate that he has found religion on the issue of government’s appropriate size.
But he might be playing more of a shell game. In reality, his proposed budget-balancing plan, which dips into the rainy day fund and uses various gimmicks to balance the books, does little to actually shrink state government.
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne defends the plan's extensive use of one-time money, for which Edwards used to excoriate Jindal, by contending that using non-recurring revenues to patch a midyear budget shortfall is somehow morally different than using one-time money in a new, annual budget. That the fiscal principle — or lack of principle — is the same whether that condition lasts for four months or 12 seems to escape Dardenne.
So, the jury for Edwards remains out. The real test will come regarding what the governor has begun to position as the make-or-break issue of his term: fiscal reform. When that process concludes, only if it restores the overall tax burden to pre-2016 level and produces a simpler system will we know that a new and improved Edwards has emerged.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics, www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.