Criminal Justice bill signing

Legislators and court officials line up behind Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday, June 15, 2017, as he signs the package of bills that overhaul the state's criminal justice system.

Advocate Photo by Rebekah Allen

Counting both wins and losses, Gov. John Bel Edwards had a pretty good session politically.

Hard to believe? After all, the budget compromise from the Senate was blocked by House GOP leaders at the last minutes of the regular session, resulting in a needless special session. The public impression of a gang that can’t shoot straight ought not to redound to the credit of the governor, who is supposed to be in charge at the State Capitol.

But Edwards is fortunate in his opposition.

Republican leaders in the House pursued an aggressive “starve the beast” strategy and it backfired, with enough GOP members voting with Democrats to overturn the lower chamber’s budget-cutting plan during the special session. The lawmakers backed a Senate-amended budget more in line with Edwards than with their own leaders’ ideas.

That 53-50 vote on a budget amendment from Edwards floor leader Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, was a rebuke to House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, and the other GOP leaders. Among the House’s most talented legislators were defectors from the party line.

Key parts of Edwards’ agenda were in the final budget, although a concession to the GOP was a pledge to hold the line on spending so that $60 million will be available should revenues fall. As Edwards’ budget architect Jay Dardenne said, that was what the administration did last year and was likely to do anyway in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The final budget fully funds TOPS, a priority for both Republicans and Democrats, but one that affects a lot of households. A significant number of state employees got a 2 percent raise, another good thing for the governor politically.

Colleges and universities, savaged by cuts under former Gov. Bobby Jindal, got a reprieve from further cuts. University of Louisiana System President Jim Henderson called it “one of the most successful legislative sessions for higher education in nearly a decade.”

The governor lost on raising the gasoline tax, although he left the running for that to Republicans and business groups.

An election is a long time away, but Edwards as the likely 2019 incumbent looks stronger now because he appears as the adult in the room during the GOP-inspired budgetary food fight.

One straw in the wind: a poll by JMC Analytics was conducted in House District 77, a strong GOP area in the fast-growing north shore communities of Covington and Madisonville.

Incumbent John Schroder is giving up his seat to run for state treasurer in October and while the poll focused on potential replacements for him, it also asked about the session just concluded. It showed that 23 percent of respondents blamed the governor, 21 percent the Legislature, and 40 percent found both “more to blame for the failure to pass a budget.” Among Republicans, 45 percent blamed both the governor and legislators, with GOP respondents only slightly more likely to blame Edwards alone.

Maybe those are not the numbers that Edwards or legislative leaders would want, but this is in one of the most Republican areas of the state.

The governor did not win them all this year, and because GOP members balk at fixing the budget hole — caused in big part by Jindal’s income tax cuts — future sessions might be more contentious than even this spring’s wearying struggle. But Edwards comes out of it politically in pretty good shape, with bipartisan wins on the budget and prison reform bills, and looking more like a conciliator and a doer, rather than an obstructionist. Not bad for the only Democrat in statewide office.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.