Gov. John Bel Edwards called on lawmakers to address the inequities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic by passing a rash of priorities ranging from a minimum wage hike to pay raises for teachers in a speech Monday capping off the first day of Louisiana’s regular legislative session.

Speaking from a make-shift stage just beyond the end-zone at Southern University’s A.W. Mumford stadium, Edwards cautioned that the pandemic is far from over and urged the public to avail themselves of one of three “extremely safe” vaccines, even as demand for the life-saving jab has lagged in recent weeks.

“Today, these bleachers are bare. But one day soon – if more people continue to get vaccinated and we hold down the transmission of the virus – we are going to fill this stadium once again,” Edwards said, singling Southern University out for administering 1,000 doses of the vaccine last weekend.

One year ago, just as Edwards was preparing to kick-off the legislative session with a “State of the State” address before a crowd of lawmakers in the House chamber, as is tradition, Louisiana reported its first case of the coronavirus.

Since then, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of nearly 10,000 Louisiana residents.

Despite the “dark and cloudy days” of the last 13 months, Edwards noted that there’s ample reason for hope: Louisiana recently expanded vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 years and older; a vaccine hotline aimed at helping residents sign up for appointments launched last week; and the federal government announced last week that it was opening a mass vaccination site at the Bon Carré Mall in Baton Rouge.

Over 28% of Louisiana residents – or more than 1.3 million people – have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and Edwards said “a new day is dawning with every shot in every arm.”

Edwards said he was eager to move beyond the pandemic – for “Mardi Gras parades to roll again” and festivals to resume – but urged lawmakers not to overlook the health inequities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic in the state’s low income and minority communities.

“If we do not address these issues now, we are doing a great disservice to people who have already suffered so much,” Edwards said. “I don’t want post-pandemic Louisiana to look completely like pre-pandemic Louisiana – nor should it. Because we can do better.”

Harkening back to a first-term policy milestone, Edwards said he “couldn’t imagine how many more people would have died this past year if not for Medicaid expansion.”

Joined by several essential workers – including a chef who spent time over the last year cooking for homeless people – Edwards called on lawmakers to up the minimum wage, calling the current floor of $7.25 an hour woefully inadequate.

Edwards' legislative package also includes a bill that would prohibit employers from screening job applicants based on their prior wages. 

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“We call essential workers heroes for continuing to work through this pandemic, yet, even when they work full time, we don’t pay them enough to cover their essential needs,” Edwards said. 

Edwards highlighted several other bills “aimed at improving advocacy for the most vulnerable,” including one that creates a statewide Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator. Another bill creates a “Foster Youth Bill of Rights,” enumerating rights for those aged 14 through 18 in the foster care system. A third bill would create an office to support victims of human trafficking, which Edwards said is “tantamount to modern day slavery.”

As always, crafting a spending plan for the financial year that begins July 1 is at the top of the agenda for lawmakers, and Edwards opened negotiations in February with a $36.6 billion spending proposal, a rosier than expected outlook thanks to massive amounts of relief from three rounds of federal aid.

That’s expected to include around $3 billion from the American Rescue Plan passed by Congressional Democrats in March, which Edwards said should be used on one-time expenses "that serve as many people as possible," like expanding broadband access. 

Edwards once again highlighted the investments his budget makes in public education, including $400 salary increases for teachers and $200 pay raises for school support staff. He acknowledged that those increases aren't nearly enough, adding that if the state's revenue forecast brightens, as expected, he'll aim to augment those increases. 

Edwards has also proposed upping higher education funding by $80 million to provide pay bumps for public university faculty, as well as a $13 million increase for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students — known as TOPS — and $11 million in additional funding for need-based financial aid. 

Amid an ever-widening probe into sexual misconduct allegations at LSU, Edwards noted his support for House Bill 409 from Rep. Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans, which would add teeth to the requirements that employees of colleges and universities report misconduct and abuse allegations, creating a chain of accountability all the way to the board that oversees the school.

Edwards once again said he'd support a tax overhaul if the package remains “revenue neutral" — where the state treasury doesn’t lose the current level of revenues needed to pay for state services. 

Before gaveling in at noon, the House Republican Delegation invited North Carolina state Rep. Jason Saine to brief members in the basement on how that state’s General Assembly overhauled the tax code to make it friendlier to businesses. The conservative think tank the Pelican Institute in Louisiana has held up the tax changes in North Carolina as a model for Louisiana as legislative leaders here embark on an effort to pass sweeping tax changes.

“Showing what North Carolina did over the course of this last decade is a huge learning tool for them as here’s how we did it,” said Saine, who is also a national chairman for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group that creates model legislation for Legislatures around the country.

Republicans took control of the General Assembly in North Carolina in 2011 and have made sweeping changes since, including creating a flat income tax of 5.25%. Saine said Republicans this year hope to drop it to 4.99%. That’s similar to what some Republicans in Louisiana’s Legislature want to do in the session that began Monday.

Sam Karlin contributed to this report. 

Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater