Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards: 'I am running again in four years' _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Gov. John Bel Edwards addresses a joint meeting of the Louisiana legislature to open the second special session Tuesday morning June 7, 2016.

Gov. John Bel Edwards is barely six months into his first term in office, but he’s already made up his mind about a second term.

“I haven’t officially announced it yet, but I am running again in four years,” Edwards told a group of mostly national reporters gathered for a health care panel in Baton Rouge on Tuesday.

Edwards, a Democrat who took office on Jan. 11, is midway through a second special legislative session called under his watch.

He told the group of reporters, part of a tour of Louisiana health care sponsored by the nonpartisan Kaiser Foundation, that Medicaid expansion is his biggest accomplishment to date.

Edwards signed an executive order expanding Medicaid through the federal Affordable Care Act shortly after taking office.

Enrollment began on June 1, and more than 204,000 Louisiana residents have signed up for coverage that takes effect July 1.

“We inherited a lot of problems here when I became governor, but this is the easiest big decision that I will make,” Edwards said.

Those “problems,” he said, largely have been tied to a shortfall that remains at $600 million for the budget that begins July 1 — and that’s after $1.2 billion in tax increases approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature. The current second special session was called to bridge the rest of the gap.

Asked about his plans for the future, Edwards was clear that any struggles so far haven’t made him question whether he should run again in 2019.

No other candidates have formally announced plans to run for governor in four years, but several Republicans have been rumored to already be eyeing the post.

Edwards served as chairman of the Louisiana House Democratic Caucus for eight years before he beat Republicans David Vitter, Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne in last fall’s governor’s race.

Edwards is the only Democrat serving in statewide elected office in Louisiana and the lone Democratic governor in the Deep South.

Edwards suffered his first major political setback before he was even sworn into office when the Republican-controlled House bucked tradition and picked its own leader.

Louisiana governors in the past have held the unusual power of handpicking who they think should serve as House speaker.

Edwards wanted fellow Democrat Walt Leger III, of New Orleans, to serve as speaker. The GOP majority in the House instead elected Republican Taylor Barras, of New Iberia.

During the regular legislative session, several of Edwards’ agenda items won approval, including a plan to increase the age that teens are charged as adults in criminal cases from 17 to 18.

But several of his agenda items also were rejected at the State Capitol. Edwards testified in committee hearings on legislation that would increase the minimum wage in Louisiana and ban companies from paying women less than men for the same work. Edwards, in a recent interview with The Advocate, identified both as his major disappointments from the regular session.

“As tough as things are in the state and as many problems as we have, for me, (Medicaid expansion) is the bright spot over the past several months,” he said.

Under the expansion, adults who make below 138 percent of federal poverty level — about $33,500 a year for a family of four or $16,200 for a single adult — are now eligible for Medicaid.

The federal government will pick up at least 90 percent of the tab for the new enrollees’ health care costs. Edwards’ administration has estimated that expansion will save the state $184 million in the coming year — largely by shifting health care to a more defined program, rather than leaving the uninsured to seek out costlier alternatives.

Edwards also predicted that the 19 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid will follow Louisiana’s lead if Democratic presumptive presidential candidate Hillary Clinton beats Republican presumptive presidential candidate Donald Trump in the election this fall.

“I fully expect there will be a number of states opt into the Medicaid expansion fairly quickly next year,” he said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.

For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.