The appointment of a veteran legislator from the Florida parishes as the next governor’s chief of staff underlines both the opportunities and the steep challenges facing Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards.
Edwards, from Amite, asked term-limited state Sen. Ben Nevers, of Bogalusa, to head his team during the transition and the administration.
Nevers served five years in the House and 12 in the Senate, where he was a committee chairman and respected by his peers. State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, said of Nevers: “Everybody likes him. It sets the right tone.”
Nevers, a Democrat, gained statewide attention in 2008 as the author of Louisiana’s “creationism” law allowing dubious materials challenging the theory of evolution into public schools. But lately, he was probably best known for a more substantive public policy struggle, when he allied with Edwards and others in an attempt to force Gov. Bobby Jindal to expand Medicaid insurance coverage for the working poor. The governor refused to do so, and the Legislature upheld Jindal’s decision.
Accepting federal dollars for Medicaid expansion is an early priority now for the new governor-elect. It’s not yet clear if Edwards will have to ask lawmakers to reverse their earlier decision against expansion. But it is certainly clear that the budget quagmire will require a willingness of legislators — most of whom were re-elected this year — to reverse, or at least partially roll back, some of their own votes during the years that Jindal was in charge.
The sometimes controversial public profile of Nevers is less important than the depth of his relationships with lawmakers who are faced with huge unpaid obligations left by the Jindal administration. With both the governor-elect and his newly named chief of staff coming directly from the Legislature, the administration is in a strong position — but will be asking lawmakers at the minimum to make tough calls on balancing the budget.
Clearly, it is those tough calls in planned special sessions in February, and the regular legislative session in the spring, that are an early focus for Edwards.