As he runs for re-election, Gov. John Bel Edwards is warning at every opportunity that electing either of his two Republican challengers would mean a return to the “failed policies” of his unpopular predecessor, Bobby Jindal.
“People need to compare and contrast where we are today with where we were then,” Edwards said in one typical riff. “And that's how they're going to make an informed decision on who they're going to vote for so we can continue to move forward and not go backwards."
But what the governor doesn’t say is that several sweeping changes pushed through the Legislature by Jindal have continued during his own three-plus years in office. This counter-intuitive fact will undoubtedly surprise many people because it has received little attention and because the governor regularly bashes Jindal, his favorite foil.
Edwards has kept in place Jindal’s privatization of the LSU-owned charity hospital system, although he has changed the public-private partnership model for the public hospitals in Shreveport and Monroe.
Edwards has not tried to revamp the changes made by Jindal and state legislators to Louisiana’s ethics laws that are alternately praised and panned.
The governor tried but failed to reverse Jindal’s changes to state education law that have allowed parents to choose their child’s public school rather than have them attend the nearest school. He also failed to curtail a controversial voucher program that allows poor families to use public dollars to attend private schools.
And the upending of the financing model for higher education that Jindal oversaw – in which tuition payments replaced state aid as the primary funding source – remains intact.
The overall irony is that many of the biggest changes wrought by Jindal seem likely to long outlast the unpopular governor who spawned them.
In an interview last month, Edwards acknowledged that Jindal’s changes to education, health care and ethics have remained the law of the land, and he seemed okay with the health care and ethics changes. He preferred, however, to mark his differences. He noted that Jindal bequeathed him a $2 billion budget deficit and refused to expand Medicaid to the working poor.
Edwards expanded Medicaid immediately after taking office, a decision that Jindal refused to take but one that has stabilized the state hospital system and increased access to medical care, according to state medical officials. And his administration, working with the Legislature, has turned the deficit into a surplus for three years running and worked with state legislators to pass laws that are putting fewer low-level offenders in prison – ending Louisiana’s lengthy reign as America’s leading jailer.
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“I’m making the case for why we’re in a better place” now, said Edwards, a Democrat who will face off against two Republican challengers – U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone – in the Oct. 12 primary.
Jindal did not respond to an interview request.
Expanding vouchers and charter schools were key parts of Jindal's effort in 2012 to remake Louisiana's long-underperforming public school system.
Vouchers allow students from low-income families who attend troubled public schools to attend certain private schools at state expense. Charters are public schools run by non-governmental boards.
Edwards, who was strongly supported by teacher unions and who opposed some of Jindal’s plans at the time, has tried but failed to roll back several of the Jindal-era public school changes. In most cases, Edwards’ proposals were rejected early in the legislative process or withdrawn by House and Senate sponsors amid overwhelming opposition in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Since 2013, at least 40 bills pushed by lawmakers to undo changes pushed by Jindal have died.
In 2016, after Edwards had just taken office and was still in his honeymoon period, he failed in his bid to restrict access to vouchers and curb the growth of charter schools.
"I think there really wasn't support for changing what the Legislature had already passed," said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, which backed most of the Jindal school overhaul bills.
"I think it is just that simple," Erwin said.
State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, who chaired the Senate Education Committee during the Jindal years, was more pointed.
"The governor made strong efforts to root out fundamental pieces of Jindal's program but we killed them all," Appel said. "The Republicans in both (legislative) committees defended the concepts that the governor and the unions wanted to yank out."
As chairman of the Senate Education Committee under Edwards, state Sen. Dan "Blade" Morrish, R-Jennings, opted in 2016 not to push an Edwards-backed bill to curtail the voucher program – even though Morrish was a sponsor.
Morrish also withdrew his anti-charter school bill amid heavy committee opposition.
"I knew it was an uphill battle from the very beginning," Morrish said recently. "I withdrew some of them because I could count."
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Similar roadblocks appeared in the House, where a bill supported by Edwards that would have banned charter schools from being run by for-profit operators was shelved by its own sponsor in 2016.
A push to overhaul the way public school teachers are evaluated – another effort to tweak a Jindal-era policy – died quietly in the House Education Committee. And a bill to make it easier for teachers to earn tenure – something Jindal had made harder – was dropped by its sponsor amid heavy opposition in the same committee.
In an interview last month, Edwards said he doesn’t want to get rid of vouchers, but acknowledged some frustration.
"I do want to improve the program, especially now that we have enough time to where we can measure just how poorly it's performing and how poor some of the schools are that are allowed to participate in the program," he said.
Edwards also groused that the House Education Committee, which he once sat on, has been especially hostile to changes in Louisiana's accountability system.
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Summing up his setbacks to change the Jindal-era education laws, he said, "Politics is about the art of the possible. Sometimes those things are not possible, depending on who is in positions in the Legislature with respect to the committee make-up and that sort of thing."
Some Edwards supporters, including Shane Riddle, legislative and political director for one of Louisiana’s two teacher unions, the LAE, blamed the legislative defeats on state budget problems that triggered seven special sessions over three years.
But others said the failure of the governor’s rollback efforts reflected political reality.
"Obviously he needed the Legislature to move any of those proposals and he didn't have the Legislature," said Brigitte Nieland, government affairs director for Stand for Children and a longtime proponent of many of the Jindal-inspired public school changes.
During his 2015 campaign, Edwards also said he wanted to replace state Superintendent of Education John White.
But those plans died because Edwards lacked support on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which names the superintendent. White is now the longest-serving state superintendent in the country.
Edwards has also had to live with a dramatic change in funding for Louisiana’s public colleges and universities. It occurred when Jindal and the Legislature steadily cut public aid for higher education, forcing the institutions to make up the difference by raising tuition and fees.
When Jindal took office in 2008, taxpayers provided $1.35 billion for the colleges and universities, which amounted to 68% of their funding. When he left office in 2016, the situation was reversed. By then, tuition and fees paid by the students’ families accounted for 68% of the funding. Edwards and the outgoing Legislature did provide an additional $47 million for higher education during the 2019 session. That was the first increase in a decade – it amounted to about 7% – but it still meant that families continue to foot two-thirds of the cost.
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While Edwards has made a number of efforts to undo Jindal’s education reforms, he has stood pat on the changes in ethics law that Jindal pushed through the state Legislature shortly after he took office in 2008.
The law remains for a simple reason, said Rick Gallot, who as a state senator from Ruston played a key role in shepherding Jindal’s revamp through the Legislature.
“It has worked and because of that we continue to enjoy a top ranking in terms of our ethics laws,” he said.
The changes required numerous elected and appointed officials to begin filing personal final disclosure reports. The changes also limited for the first time how much lobbyists could spend on wining and dining lawmakers and required lobbyists to file more frequent reports on their spending.
The changes also authorized panels of administrative law judges to rule on ethics case violations – a duty that previously belonged to the state ethics board. The new law also required a higher standard of evidence to prove guilt in a case.
Critics have said the new system is cumbersome, slow and punishes too few violators. But Edwards said he supported the various ethics reforms when he was a lawmaker and never intended to change them.
Edwards also noted that he also supported another Jindal-era ethics law change in 2015 that required the governor’s office to be more transparent. The change partly undid a 2009 law backed by Jindal that allowed the governor’s office to shield certain potentially embarrassing documents from public view if the documents were considered part of a “deliberative process.”
“I voted for the one that became effective on the executive branch knowing that I intended to be the governor when that happened,” Edwards said. “I’ve operated with a level of transparency that hasn’t existed at any point in the history of the state of Louisiana.”
LSU’s hospital system also remains privatized under changes made by Jindal and the Legislature.
Under the new system, which took effect in 2014, private operators essentially assumed day-to-day control of the Charity Hospital system while receiving state and federal dollars to operate the hospitals and pay LSU doctors and nurses. The Charity system dated to the 1930s and then-Gov. Huey P. Long.
The state closed the LSU hospitals in Alexandria and Baton Rouge and essentially contracted with private hospital groups to provide the same care that LSU had previously provided. The state closed Lake Charles’ in-patient emergency room hospital but reopened it for outpatient care under private management.
The LSU hospitals in New Orleans, Lafayette, Houma, Bogalusa, Shreveport and Monroe now operate as public-private partnerships.
Under Edwards, the state gained a stronger role in operating the Shreveport and Monroe hospitals beginning last year.
Following that change for those two hospitals, inpatient admissions have increased slightly, the number of residents who have graduated is up and the wait time to see a primary care physician has dropped from 32 days to less than a week, according to information supplied by LSU-Shreveport.
“We’re trying to strengthen those partnerships and make them work even better, and we are,” Edwards said.
The other seven privatized hospitals are treating more patients during hospital stays, in the emergency room and on an outpatient basis, according to figures supplied by LSU.
Dr. Larry Hollier, who is chancellor of the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, said privatization has benefited state taxpayers, patients and the state medical training program.
“One of the problems Charity always had, funding was not stable or adequate,” Hollier said. “From year to year, we didn’t know how much money we would get. We were dependent on the state general fund to run the hospitals.
“The availability of funds to provide health care dramatically stabilized because now the state had these lease payments they could use to do a Medicare and Medicaid match” with the federal government. “You now are not dependent only on state dollars.
“For state taxpayers, it has reduced the need to provide to provide health care funding for uninsured and under-insured. For patients, it has improved hospital beds, clinics and accessibility for appointments. For health sciences center and schools, it has improved training facilities for dentistry, medicine, nursing, allied health.”