It’s probably overstating things to say that John Bel Edwards’ resounding gubernatorial victory in reliably Republican Louisiana has made him a rising star among national Democrats, but the rare Southern victory has piqued interest throughout his party.
Let’s hope it all doesn’t go to Edwards’ head. The last thing Louisiana needs is another governor who sees the job as a stepping stone, rather than a full-time commitment, and acts that way.
Not that Edwards is showing any signs of following outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal’s lead so far. Edwards’ campaign was a full-throated rebuke to Jindal’s thwarted presidential ambitions. He ran as a homeboy, promised pragmatism rather than ideological purity and vowed to put Louisiana’s needs first.
When it comes to money matters, the difference is already showing.
The conventional wisdom has long held that there’s no low-hangingfruit left to pick to help Louisiana climb out of its perpetual budget hole. And sure enough, the Jindal administration’s latest solution to meet a midyear shortfall relied once again on gimmicks, from raids on trust funds to delayed payments to vendors that earned their money — a tactic euphemistically described by Jindal’s top budget official as “cash flow management.”
Yet even before Edwards gets sworn in, it’s becoming clear the new administration and Legislature will have more options at their disposal, simply because Edwards has no interest in turning President Barack Obama and the federal government into rhetorical bogey men.
Take Medicaid expansion. Jindal tried to position himself on the national campaign trail as the race’s staunchest critic of the president’s Affordable Care Act, and he refused to even consider expanding government health insurance for the poor, even though the feds would pick up 100 percent up the cost during the first three years and up to 90 percent subsequently.
Edwards promised during his own race to take the money, and with Jindal on his way out the door, the issue’s temperature has already dropped drastically. A recent Senate Finance Committee briefing on the options was notably short on saber-rattling. Instead, lawmakers from both parties signaled their willingness to collect data and make research-based choices.
“I’d like to see how much it costs. I don’t think we’ve ever had a really good estimate of what it costs,” said Jack Donahue, a Mandeville Republican who is wrapping up his term as Finance Committee chairman. “It could be a benefit to Louisiana.”
That such open-minded information-gathering is even possible is a new and welcome development. Donahue, it’s worth noting, has seen his efforts blocked by Jindal before. He once sponsored a bill requiring the Revenue Estimating Conference to report on the cost of certain tax incentives , only to watch Jindal veto it. The governor noted in his official veto message that a national anti-tax group, Americans for Tax Reform, had asked him to kill the effort.
There’s new hope too for another area where Jindal took what he insisted was a principled stand, an upgraded rail link between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Despite widespread support in both cities, Jindal refused to apply for a low-cost grant that was part of Obama’s huge stimulus package, so Louisiana missed out on a big opportunity to improve its infrastructure (among the cause’s champions is Edwards’ choice for House Speaker, New Orleans state Rep. Walt Leger). The stimulus train has long since left the station, so to speak, but the Edwards administration can, and hopefully will, seek other federal support.
Other funding opportunities have passed as well, but Edwards has said he’ll be on the lookout for new prospects, all under the theory that this is money that Louisiana taxpayers contribute to the national treasury, and that they should share in the benefits. State costs remain a serious consideration, of course, but their existence should be the beginning of the conversation, not the end. Same goes for the possibility that such investments can spur private sector development, not to mention serving Louisiana residents.
None of this is to say that Louisiana isn’t in serious trouble financially or that easy options abound. Still, now that the fog of Jindal’s presidential campaign is lifting, some promising ideas are appearing right before our eyes. Just where they’ve been all along.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.