So far, Gov. John Bel Edwards has divided the bills that have reached his desk into two categories: There are the bills he’s signed and those he wants to make sure we all know he signed.
The first category is perfunctory. The bills on this list range from technical matters to run-of-the-mill legislation to measures he doesn’t want to block but has no particular interest in embracing.
The second category, bills that Edwards has endorsed in public signing ceremonies, is a lot more interesting. This is where the governor gets to make a statement, to highlight issues he finds important, to honor constituents who fought particularly hard for a change — and also to crow a bit.
Edwards, a Democrat, has to be disappointed that he didn’t get to publicly celebrate passage of two of his top priorities, a bill to raise the state minimum wage and one to make it easier for women to ensure equitable pay. Although both proposals were centerpieces of his successful campaign and integral to his anti-poverty agenda, neither made it through the Republican-dominated Legislature.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any accomplishments to claim.
By staging a signing ceremony for the bill that finally will return state-run New Orleans schools to local control, Edwards signaled his attitude toward the bill’s importance. He also had the chance to show off widespread support for the measure by including officials from both the state and city.
Same goes for the “ban the box” bill, which is aimed at giving ex-cons a chance to compete for employment. This bill is part of a nationwide bipartisan criminal justice reform effort, and Edwards said as much by signing it surrounded by people who don’t often see eye to eye. Of particular note here was the presence of the Rev. Gene Mills, of Louisiana Family Forum. Mills was a close ally of former Gov. Bobby Jindal and has criticized Edwards on social issues such as his support for gay rights.
Also making the cut were bills to send 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system rather than adult court; to set up rules and procedures for use of medical marijuana; and to issue Louisianans driver’s licenses that will allow residents to board a plane. Each warranted a formal signing ceremony and photo-op with supporters.
Compare that with Edwards’ approach toward most other bills. For example, the governor could have shown off his own penmanship by signing his name before the cameras to a bill mandating the all-important teaching of cursive in Louisiana public schools. Instead, his office merely announced that he’d signed it into law. Message received.
Of course, Edwards has a third option, the veto. He’s yet to use it, but when and if he does, his attitude should tell us even more about priorities and management approach.
Jindal, who never served in the Legislature and who was considered a distant figure, used his veto power aggressively, both to brush back individual lawmakers and to preserve a presidential campaign-friendly record on ideological issues. Among the bills he vetoed was an earlier version of the Real ID bill Edwards signed to bring Louisiana driver’s licenses into compliance with federal regulations, all because some big-government conspiracy theorists opposed it.
Edwards came out of the Legislature and has shown more deference than Jindal did. Yet he also believes in the traditionally strong role that governors have played, as he signaled when he tried, and failed, to install an ally as House speaker. Edwards clearly would like to play the nice guy who works with his fellow politicians, but he also understands when his authority is being challenged, as it has been repeatedly, particularly in the House.
A friendlier Senate has kept many of the bills Edwards opposed from reaching his desk, but he will have some interesting choices to make. Worth watching is the capital outlay bill that the House failed to pass during the regular session but that is on track to become law during the current special session. Edwards has a line-item veto, which means he could cancel out projects in districts of lawmakers to whom he’d like to send a message.
Whether or not he does so will tell us a lot about what else to expect over the rest of his four years.