Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday warned local officials from across Louisiana that they will inevitably be hit by cyber-attacks, urging them to invest in protecting their computer systems before they become the latest in a host of governments and other institutions crippled by ransomware in the state.

Speaking to a room full of small-town leaders at a gathering of the Louisiana Municipal Association in Baton Rouge, Edwards said the state can help locals in responding to attacks from hackers. But he told the officials to protect their data and even consider cyber-security insurance.

“You may not have been hit yet in your town or in your city. But it’s a question of when, not if,” Edwards said. “And when it happens it is very, very problematic.”

Louisiana has experienced a spate of cyber attacks in recent months, in some cases paralyzing government services. A cyber attack that wreaked havoc on New Orleans’ government in December cost the city more than $7 million. A similar attack on state government right after last fall’s general elections closed down state motor vehicle offices for weeks. Last year, a string of school districts became victims of hackers. Just this week ITI Technical College in Baton Rouge is trying to restore its system after taking its computers offline to clean up from ransom that was demanded to allow access to the school's databased records.

The attacks that have made headlines in Louisiana so far have largely used ransomware, where hackers lock up data and demand payment, usually in bitcoin, for its release.

Edwards implored local officials not to pay the ransom when they are hit with the attacks, something that would “affirm” the hackers’ business model.

“If you think this is something that is easily overcome, go talk to one of the eight or 10 school systems that have been hit since last July,” Edwards said. “Go talk to the city of New Orleans. Go talk to various sheriff departments, or the convention center. They actually hit the state of Louisiana on the Monday after the election in November. So this is going to happen. I’m asking you all to do what you can to be prepared for it.”

Edwards touted the state’s cyber security task force and officials with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management who are equipped to respond to cyber attacks, saying the state is ahead of the curve.

Still, the ransomware attack that hit state government in November — which officials believe started when a state employee opened a sketchy link in an email — led to widespread outages of state email servers and websites. For weeks afterward, people were unable to do things like renew their licenses at OMV offices that were shuttered. Edwards declared a state of emergency following the attack.

After the speech, Edwards also addressed his deadlock with Republican legislative leaders over the state's revenue forecast. Last week, the governor's administration could not reach a deal with House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez over the revenue forecasts on the Revenue Estimating Conference. 

Instead of presenting a traditional budget proposal, Edwards will offer up a spending plan based on a revenue forecast that he hopes the panel will adopt later in the year. He did the same thing last year after GOP leaders refused to adopt the forecasts. He also said he was "relatively unconcerned" about the dustup and that he was working with Schexnayder and Cortez to reach an agreement. 

"It won't technically be an executive budget," Edwards said. "It'll be a spending plan that we give the Legislature that will be premised upon the adoption of a forecast and obviously we have to have a number to guide that." 

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com