James Gill: New John Bel Edwards administration might make us more civilized, but we’ll still be backward _lowres

Louisiana Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards addresses supporters at his election night watch party in New Orleans, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. Edwards won the runoff election for Louisiana governor Saturday, defeating the once-heavy favorite, Republican David Vitter, and handing the Democrats their first statewide victory since 2008. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

If, as Samuel Johnson averred, “a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization,” Louisiana might now be ready to enter a less barbarous age.

The imminent expansion of Medicaid, fiercely opposed by outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal, will cover some 400,000 people currently unable to afford health insurance. That would have to be regarded as a civilized move by the Johnson standard.

Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards has declared Medicaid expansion will be his first order of business, and confirmed it by appointing Ben Nevers as his chief of staff.

Nevers is either deeply affected by the plight of the least among us, or missed his true vocation. As the Democratic state senator from Bogalusa, he has more than once appeared on the verge of tears in committee when pushing bills to alleviate hardship. If it’s all an act, he could have been an Oscar winner.

Nevers is the very opposite of our wonkish Gov. Bobby Jindal. When urging that Louisiana adopt a minimum wage, which Jindal opposed with dry economic arguments, for instance, Nevers sought to tug at legislators’ heart strings with tales of kids without leather on their shoes whose moms could not even manage to buy them a candy bar.

The committee remained unmoved, however. His repeated efforts to persuade legislators to defy Jindal on Medicaid expansion never made it to the floor either, and the waterworks duly came on in this year’s session.

In the House the main champion of the Medicaid cause over the last three years has been the Democratic member from Amite, none other than Edwards. The issue cannot be said to have determined the outcome of the gubernatorial election; the margin of victory was too wide for that and, besides, the loser, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, said he would not take Medicaid expansion “off the table” provided only the employed were taken into the fold. But Edwards made his intentions so clear that this clearly qualifies as a vote for civilization.

Jindal asserted that, by accepting the huge infusion of federal money on offer, Louisiana would be responsible for matching funds that would ultimately make Medicaid expansion a drain on the state coffers. But that may have been no more than a pretext; the GOP sometimes seems eager to reject any idea that has been espoused by President Barack Obama.

According to the Louisiana Healthcare Consumer Coalition, if Louisiana gets with the program, the feds will contribute $1.2 billion in 2016, creating 15,600 new jobs and stimulating the economy to the tune of $1.8 billion.

Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, moreover, points out that Louisiana spends $1 billion a year providing hospital treatment for the uninsured. Medicaid expansion would reduce those bills by “tens of millions of dollars.”

Although there is a fiscal case for more Medicaid, that is not what gave the incoming chief of staff his lachrymose moments. Edwards and Nevers both seem to regard expanding Medicare as a Christian duty.

Jindal is more ostentatiously Christian than either of them, so no doubt he recognizes an obligation to help the less fortunate, but if he ever fretted about the impact his policies might have on the poor, he was never inclined to harp on it or dab away a tear.

The appointment of Nevers as chief of staff is, however, a setback for the campaign to repeal that cynical misnomer, the Louisiana Science Education Act, which allows biology teachers to muddy the waters by pitting the theory of evolution against the myths of Genesis. Edwards is against teaching creationism in the public schools, but is unlikely to do much about it, for the principal sponsor of the Science Education Act from day one was Nevers, working in cahoots with the Louisiana Family Forum.

To give the forces of reason further cause for despair, Family Forum Vice President Rick Edmonds has just been elected to the state house as a Republican from East Baton Rouge.

Not that the Forum was short of clout anyway. Edmonds boasted a couple of months ago that it had prevailed on 37 of the 38 bills it lobbied on in the last session, and the anti-creationists never come close to getting a bill out of committee.

The new administration might make us more civilized, but we’ll still be backward.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.