Gov. John Bel Edwards marks start of second special session: 'There is still more important work left to do' _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Governor John Bel Edwards smiles as he begins a meeting with the editorial board of The Advocate and other staffers of the newspaper, Tuesday, May 31, 2016 at the State Capitol.

Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday welcomed state legislators from around the country to New Orleans for the annual meeting of ALEC -- a lobbying group known for pushing mostly conservative, business-friendly legislation in state capitols.

As the only Democrat governor in the Deep South and Louisiana's lone Democratic state-wide officeholder, the American Legislative Exchange Council meeting could seem an unlikely venue for Edwards, who is running for re-election next year.

Liberal protestors demonstrated outside the Hilton Riverside, calling for an end to ALEC's influence, before Edwards took the stage. Inside, as Edwards spoke, conservative anti-tax advocates attending the conference tweeted complaints about the governor's tax policies.

During the nearly 15-minute address, Edwards broadly touted the state's stabilized budget, spoke of the need for a continued infrastructure upgrades and generally didn't bring up policies, like his expansion of Medicaid, that may have proven unpopular to the conservative crowd.

"We made real progress," Edwards told ALEC attendees. "Louisiana continues to offer a great business climate."

Thirty-five Louisiana state legislators are members of ALEC. Edwards, who spent eight years in the state House before becoming governor, was a member of ALEC and was introduced as an ALEC alum to applause on Wednesday.

ALEC's critics have accused the organization of advancing an agenda driven by corporate interests over the public's.

The group's efforts have included attempts to dismantle the federal Affordable Care Act that enabled the expansion of Medicaid, implement stricter voter identification requirements, shift education to a more privatized model and limit lawsuits against companies through tort reform.

ALEC National Chairman Jason Saine, a Republican state representative from North Carolina, said Edwards was a welcome voice at the conference, even if some of his positions may clash with the group's.

"Good ideas shouldn't be partisan," Saine said in an interview with The Advocate before Edwards' speech. "We want to hear from him."

The group has frequently come under scrutiny by Democrats and other liberal groups as it has pushed pro-business, anti-regulation bills on the state level and linked up legislators with business lobbyists. Attendees on Wednesday carried meeting materials in tote bags emblazoned with the Chevron logo.

About two dozen protesters gathered outside the Hilton hotel waving signs calling for ALEC to be "abolished." "Let the people speak, not ALEC," one sign read.

Through pushing "model legislation" -- often in the form of pre-written legislation that lawmakers can file in their home states that have spawned near identical laws in some states -- Saine said that ALEC brings like-minded officials together to share best practices that are in line with a pro-business outlook.

"It's a huge benefit to us," he said.

In an interview with The Advocate, ALEC CEO Lisa Nelson noted that Edwards has signed into law at least three bills championed by the group: A budget transparency legislation dubbed "Louisiana Checkbook," a "free speech" law that has been pushed nationally in response to safe spaces and backlash to conservative speakers and legislation meant to stop environmental protestors from damaging pipelines and other infrastructure projects.

Edwards also in the last legislative session vocally supported an effort to cut back on Louisiana's occupational licensing requirements, which is another ALEC priority, Nelson noted.

"Those are things we've been working on, so it makes all the sense in the world for him to speak to legislators and show there are areas in policy where we can come together," Nelson said.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican who has been a critic of Edwards and has been considering a run for governor next year, is expected to introduce a speaker during the three-day conference. Scott Angelle, a Republican who ran against Edwards in 2015 and has since been appointed to the Trump administration, is also scheduled to speak at the event.

No Republican has formally announced plans to run against Edwards in 2019, though several of his frequent critics, including Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, say they are considering it.

Both have repeatedly criticized Edwards as too liberal for a state that voted 58 percent in favor of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election.

Edwards is scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump in Bedminster, New Jersey, Thursday to discuss criminal justice reform efforts in Louisiana that may serve as a nation-wide model -- a meeting at which he is expected to be the only Democratic governor. He has held similar meetings with the Trump administration in the past.

Saine said states in the South are in constant competition for policies that will win over business investments and build up their workforces. He said he thinks state leaders learn best practices when they attend ALEC.

"We can't just sit back," he said. "I like the competition."

In introducing Edwards, Saine praised Edwards' commitment to "sound tax policy."

After seven special sessions in less than three years, the Legislature in June agreed to renew part of an expiring sales tax hike to prevent deep cuts to the budget, setting a 4.45 percent sales tax rate as of July 1. The sales tax rate would have gone to 4 percent without the renewal. Prior to June 30 it was 5 percent.

Conservative groups have criticized the sales tax budget fix, which was approved with bi-partisan support.

"Why is (Edwards) praising tax increases as fiscally responsible?" Chris Jacobs, a senior fellow for the conservative Pelican Institute tweeted during Edwards' ALEC address.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.