Pay raises for Louisiana teachers will be Gov. John Bel Edwards' priority heading into 2019, but there are some items on the governor's wish list that have remained elusive as he heads into the final year of his first term.
"I'm optimistic because if you talk to Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, there is near universal support for the (teacher) pay raise," Edwards told reporters during a year-end news conference at the Governor's Mansion on Wednesday. "It's my No. 1 priority for the next year's session."
But the inability to address two other priorities — both coincidentally issues dealing with pay, as well — top the governor's list of disappointments during his first three years in office.
Edwards, a Democrat who took office in 2016 and is seeking re-election in 2019, had campaigned on support for an increase in the minimum wage and efforts to address equal pay.
“It’s no secret that I ran on, believe in, and have on multiple occasions asked the Legislature to increase the minimum wage in Louisiana," he said. "That has not happened, and I think that is a travesty.”
Both proposals have been repeatedly rejected in the GOP-controlled Legislature after intense lobbying from business groups.
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“We’re going to keep fighting for it but I’m very disappointed to stand here at the end of my third year and tell you we haven’t been able to get that done," Edwards said.
Two Republicans have announced plans to challenge Edwards as he seeks a second term – Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto.
Others could also get into the race ahead of the Oct. 12 election. A runoff will take place on Nov. 16 between the top two vote-getters, if no one gets more than 50 percent in the primary.
For his top priority heading into the election year, Edwards is recommending that the Legislature in the coming year approve an annual $1,000 pay raise for teachers and a $500 increase for support workers.
The proposal has been embraced by Democrats and Republicans at the State Capitol — a sharp difference from Edwards' past pay priority legislation addressing the minimum wage and pay disparities by gender.
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Minimum-wage workers in Louisiana make $7.25 an hour because it remains one of just five states that never adopted a state-level minimum wage rate and, therefore, defaults to the federal rate that hasn't changed in a decade. Several other states have set minimum wage levels at the federal rate, as well. But Arkansas and Missouri voters last month approved minimum wage increases in those states, and the minimum wage went up in 18 other states at the start of 2018, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The previous year, 19 states saw minimum wage hikes.
“Seven dollars and a quarter is not a meaningful wage in 2018 and here we are about to be in 2019," Edwards said.
Renee Amar, small business director for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said LABI will continue to oppose the minimum wage hike.
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“Setting a minimum wage for the state is a one-size-fits all approach,” she said. “We think business owners know best.”
Edwards has called for a minimum wage hike of $1.25 over two years to $8.50 an hour. Others have suggested that as other states around Louisiana set theirs higher, a bigger increase is warranted here as well, even though a House panel last year soundly rejected a $15 an hour proposal in a 9-3 vote after listening to pleas from minimum-wage earners who filled the committee room to tell their lawmakers how they've struggled to make ends meet.
“If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, Congress is out of the business now of increasing the minimum wage,” Edwards said. “They are looking to states to do it.”
Similar to the minimum wage issue, Edwards also campaigned on promising to tackle the state's gender pay disparity.
The Louisiana Legislature has rejected 28 equal pay bills in the past decade, after facing opposition from some business groups and others who argue that it could encourage frivolous lawsuits. Critics also say statistics on the gender pay gap often don't reflect the differences in skill and job type that can separate men and women in various employment fields that are reflected in pay, making arguments about discriminatory wages moot.
Amar said LABI also believes that equal pay legislation doesn’t get to the root of the issue.
Louisiana already has a law against discrimination that covers gender, and the issue is covered by federal policies in place.
Louisiana’s biggest gender pay issue, in LABI’s view, is that fewer women than men choose to enter STEM fields that pay higher. Amar said the state should do more to encourage women to enter higher-paying fields.
“That’s a way to close the wage gap,” she said.