During the first 72 hours of his term, Gov. John Bel Edwards became the first governor in modern Louisiana history to have his choice for House speaker rejected, visited with the president of the United States and addressed a powerful group that endorsed his opponent.
Apart from the people serving the food, Edwards probably received few votes among the hundreds in the ballroom for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry luncheon. In fact, the seating chart bore a vague resemblance to U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s campaign finance reports.
A trade association representing businesspeople and professionals, LABI is one of the most influential special-interest groups in Louisiana politics. It’s headed by Stephen Waguespack, who had been one of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s closest aides.
LABI had made only three endorsements in gubernatorial campaigns since 1983, two of which were re-election romps for the incumbents. But 10 days before the Nov. 21 runoff, just as early voting was starting and the polls were universally calling for a tight election, LABI threw its lot behind Vitter. Organized labor backed Edwards.
Edwards began his speech lightly, noting that the invitation was sent months ago to all the major candidates, thereby ensuring the winner would be around to give the keynote address. “There is nobody more surprised about me being here today than Stephen,” Edwards said.
Generally, it was pretty much the same speech Edwards has been giving since he was elected: finances are in crisis; we need to buckle up regardless of party and do what needs to be done.
For businesspeople, that sounds an awful lot like more costs for them.
Edwards and legislators have to find $750 million to balance this year’s budget before June 30 and then find another $1.2 billion for the fiscal year that begins July 1. After years of patching together budgets by whacking higher education and health care, redirecting monies and selling assets, state government has few options.
Whatever tax breaks are eliminated, whatever changes to the financing structures are made, Edwards needs the business community helping rather than opposing.
“I’m here asking you today to join with me so that together we can chart a better course for Louisiana, a brighter course, one that will involve you not just in the implications of what we do but in the decisions we make about what we are going to do,” Edwards said.
Waguespack wants to see Edwards’ proposals and what is contained in his order calling the Legislature into special session to tackle the financial crisis. “When the call comes out, I think it’ll help give folks a lot of clarity about what he means by working together, but our guys are ready to work together,” he said.
Edwards is presenting budget choices perhaps as early as this week.
He likens the plan to something like a smorgasbord, which will lay out the various alternatives allowing budget architects to pick between a selection of service cuts and tax increases.
“All of the options aren’t going to come from the dessert end of the buffet line,” Edwards added.
New Iberia Republican Taylor Barras noted after his first full day as House speaker that the past eight years of delaying hard decisions means now services vital to someone will have to be cut, tax breaks and spending dedications treasured by someone else will have to roll back, and some taxes, which nobody likes, will have to be raised. It’ll probably have to be some combination.
“I think the approach of cutting $2 billion from the state general fund is not feasible,” Barras said. “To raise that much in revenue also is far off in the horizon.”
Barras was the last-minute choice for speaker as the Republican House caucus asserted its majority to force one of its own into the key leadership position. The speaker chooses the leaders and membership of the committees and decides when, and if, bills will be debated.
Following a tradition unique to Louisiana of letting the executive branch choose the leaders in the legislative branch, Edwards had backed a Democrat. The House Republican caucus, historically, elected its own speaker.
In the end, though, all this legislative independence may bode well for Edwards. When budget fixes are remembered during the next campaigns, candidates can’t just paint it as a leftist tax increase or Democrats eliminating valued services.
If, as Barras says, the plate will be full of unpalatable choices, the newly assertive Republican-led Legislature will have to own some of the dishes.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@the advocate.com, and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.