Opening the third legislative session of his young administration Tuesday morning, Gov. John Bel Edwards said he can still feel the same “breeze of hope” that greeted his inauguration less than five months ago. Yet Edwards’ 20-minute address to launch this year’s second revenue-raising special session, delivered less than 24 hours after the regular session adjourned, carried a distinct whiff of fatigue.
Can anyone really blame him?
By now, the governor has mastered the art of balancing optimism about Louisiana’s future with cold-eyed realism about its present.
He talked hopefully about a day when everyone in state government can move on from a perennial budget crisis “so that Louisiana can thrive, not merely survive,” but also called out those lawmakers who are still, in his view, avoiding the tough actions needed close a $600 million budget gap and more fully fund higher education, hospitals and K-12 schools in the short term -- and to break a dysfunctional cycle in the long term.
“You’ve heard me say this before, but we need - no, we have to - make the harder right choices in the next two weeks, rather than the easier wrong ones that could have negative long-term effects on our state,” he said.
Edwards’ irritation with some lawmakers -- both those who insist he really wants to raise taxes and those who refused to pass the state’s construction budget on the regular session’s final day -- was obvious.
But his more consistent target was the ghost of his predecessor Bobby Jindal. As he has since he took office, Edwards has regularly reminded voters that the “real mess” on his hands did not materialize on his watch. As he often does, Edwards cited Jindal’s habit of resorting to accounting gimmicks and trust fund raids to balance the budget. He also cited the prior administration’s decision to delay accounting for some cost increases and issuing vendor payments until he left office, which pushed those obligations onto Edwards’ plate.
“It took eight years to create this crisis, and I know the damage cannot be fully repaired in one, two or even three sessions, but we can’t ignore our problems like we have in the past,” Edwards said. “More importantly, the people of Louisiana shouldn’t have to be here year after year pleading for quality, affordable education or begging that life-saving waivers and critical Medicaid services are preserved.”
You can’t really blame Edwards for that either, given what he inherited. Still, at some point in the relatively near future, he’s going to have to take ownership of the state’s problems, as well as solutions that include unpopular tax increases. That he’s unhappy at having to push these policies is apparent, but it will only get him so far with voters.
So Edwards’ plea for lawmakers to swallow their medicine, raise revenue and back structural tax reform comes off as not just responsible, but sincere. Breaking the cycle would be a real service to the state.
Besides, it’s hard to imagine anybody who’d like to change the subject as badly as he would.
‘Grace notes’ is a daily feature by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace. To read more of her content, including her full columns, click here.