JBE 2018 end

Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks to reporters during a year-end news conference at the Governor's Mansion on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is heading into a heated re-election battle next year, spent his final news conference of 2018 touting successes the state saw in the past year – the state budget deficit is gone, the GDP is at a record high and the state has its lowest uninsured rate ever.

"The size of our economy now is bigger than it has ever been," he said.

He also hinted toward the upcoming session, and how it could be different after three years of sessions and special sessions all aimed at addressing the state's fiscal woes. The Legislature this year agreed to shore up the state's finances by setting the state sales tax rate at 4.45 percent. It would have dropped to 4 percent on July 1, without that action, which took months of negotiations.

"The days of crippling deficits are behind us," he said.

Edwards, who took office in January 2016, said teacher pay raises are the "No. 1 priority" on his agenda heading into 2019, an election year.

"I haven't heard a single legislator say they are not for it," he said.

Two Republicans — Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham,0 of Alto — have already announced plans to run against Edwards, and both have taken aim at the state's economic picture, which they argue could be better.

On the national level, Republicans have targeted the race as an opportunity to unseat the only Democratic governor in the Deep South.

Edwards struck an optimistic tone during his 2018 recap, despite news earlier in the day that the state's personal income growth slowed to 2.3 percent in the third quarter of the year – a rate outpaced by nearly every other state and well below the 4 percent national average.

Edwards said the latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reflected the impact that federal tariffs are having on Louisiana's agriculture and petrochemical industries. He said he's urging the White House and the state's Congressional delegation to work to ease the burden here.

"We've come too far in improving ... to let this get in the way of progress," he said.

Edwards also praised Congress for bipartisan passage of criminal justice legislation this week. With Edwards' support, Louisiana previously passed similar legislation on a state level. He said the overwhelming passage on the federal level "further reaffirms" Louisiana's criminal justice overhaul.

Abraham, meanwhile, was one of 36 members of the U.S. House to vote against the package championed by the Trump administration.

“We’ve seen the negative effects this kind of criminal rights activism is having in Louisiana, and I’d hate to inflict that mistake on communities elsewhere in our country,” Abraham said in a statement after his vote.

U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, a Madisonville Republican who had mulled running against Edwards next year before ultimately deciding to remain focused on his Senate term, and U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre, were the other members of Louisiana's delegation that voted against the criminal justice reform measure.

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Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.