Stephanie Grace: Here's why Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards shifted right on food stamps policy _lowres

AP file photo: Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards

During his winning campaign for governor last fall, John Bel Edwards sharply criticized outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal for trying to cut benefits provided through the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps. Once elected, Edwards successfully petitioned President Barack Obama’s administration to reverse Jindal’s move and keep the benefits in place.

Yet last week, in what sure looks like an early sign of how the Democratic governor will position himself for re-election in a still-Republican state, he issued an executive order that could have come straight from Jindal’s pen.

Edwards’ order requires unemployed, able-bodied adults without children to sign up for job training in order to receive the federally funded aid beyond three months. That’s not so far off from what Jindal had proposed when he reversed his own long-standing policy in October and said he wouldn’t reapply for a waiver available to states with high unemployment rates. Jindal would have cut off benefits after three months for some 31,000 Louisianians, unless they found part-time work or signed up for job training.

So why the change? And just how much of a change is it?

First, the why.

Edwards ran as an unapologetic populist, yet supporters say he’s keenly aware of his position as a Democrat who hopes to win re-election despite the state’s conservative leanings.

Food stamps are clearly a topic that resonates with some Republican voters, and while Jindal’s out of the picture, other politicians, including state Treasurer and U.S. Senate candidate John Kennedy, bring them up at every opportunity. In the Legislature, Republican Rep. Jay Morris, of Monroe, has a bill that would prevent any governor from seeking a waiver without legislative approval. Morris’ bill has passed the House, and Edwards’ executive order seems timed to head off its progress in the less-conservative Senate.

It also gives him an opportunity to inch to the right, even as he’s simultaneously pursuing an anti-poverty agenda that includes Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act and a modest increase in the state minimum wage.

Indeed, Edwards seems to be looking for issues where he can show off some centrist tendencies, from the so-called pastor protection bill he’s said he’d sign over the objections of gay-rights activists, to measures designed to crack down on Planned Parenthood’s ability to provide health services to the very Medicaid patients he aims to otherwise help.

What’s a bit surprising is that Edwards’ move on food stamps has drawn support from some of the very same advocates who criticized Jindal’s move.

Jan Moller, of the Louisiana Budget Project, which had attacked Jindal’s initial move as heartless, called Edwards’ order a “good plan on paper.” New Orleans-based Stand with Dignity had called Jindal’s maneuver a “starvation plan” and sued to stop it but responded quickly and enthusiastically to Edwards’ announcement.

“Gov. Edwards’ order is a critical step towards addressing barriers to employment and building career ladders for people who have been excluded from work across Louisiana,” said Stand with Dignity organizer Latoya Lewis. “As Gov. Edwards states, this executive order recognizes the daily challenges of individuals surviving on government benefits and seeks to address these issues through programming that leads to meaningful and sustainable employment.”

The support from Jindal’s critics suggests a couple of things. One is that Edwards has a certain level of credibility among those who share his goals of alleviating poverty and that they not only trust his intentions but understand his political constraints.

The second is that they hope Edwards may really be offering something new and more productive. His order calls on the Louisiana Workforce Commission and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System to team up and provide what advocates hope will be more available and meaningful help than what’s widely available now.

“I think it’s intended to really support people in finding people employment,” as opposed to just being “punitive,” said Stand with Dignity spokeswoman Colette Tippy, who said her group plans to work with the Edwards administration to make that happen.

Edwards said the new programs will be put together with existing resources, but there’s a bit of an irony that a more conservative approach will rely upon significant government investment.

“For this plan to work properly, the Legislature needs to make sure the agencies that are charged with carrying out the plan are adequately funded,” Moller said.

And here’s another irony: Jindal, who made his move while he was still trying to salvage his presidential campaign, saw that this issue carries plenty of political currency.

Apparently Edwards does, too.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.