Barely a month into office, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards finds himself at the center of what could be a major showdown over how to fix the state budget.
Edwards, a Democrat in a state where Republicans control both chambers of the state Legislature, has set out on an ambitious plan for a three-and-a-half-week special session with the goal of paring back agencies, as well as increasing some taxes. He’s hoping to cobble together a coalition that will push through his tax hikes to generate more revenue and stave off drastic cuts to higher education and health care in the budget that ends June 30 and the following year.
Edwards, himself, is expected to take a visible role during the special session — a departure from his predecessor, Republican Bobby Jindal, who was rarely seen in the halls of the State Capitol. Over the next three weeks, he also will be relying on a carefully crafted team to advance the short-term and long-term budget solutions he has identified.
“This team represents the very best talent Louisiana has to offer and I look forward to the collaborative and innovative solutions they will bring to the work of my administration,” Edwards said in announcing a slate of hires shortly after taking office.
Here are some of the key members of Edwards’ administration, as the special legislative session gears up:
Jay Dardenne, Commissioner of Administration
Edwards announced former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, a Republican, as his chief budget architect within weeks of winning the Nov. 21 runoff. His role in the special session will be to convey Edwards’ budget plan — in particular the cuts ahead — and stress how dire the outlook is. Already, Dardenne has presented an executive budget proposal that is meant to serve as a worst-case scenario if the Legislature doesn’t act this session. Dardenne delivered the grim news during a recent presentation at the State Capitol that verged on combative but was certainly meant to be a straight-talk moment.
“We are now being asked to make up for the problems that have been created over the past eight years by not being realistic and honest about what we were doing,” he told legislators, frequently pointing out that they approved the budgets and many of them were partially to blame.
Dardenne had come in fourth place in the gubernatorial primary, after being the only candidate to openly talk about the need for increasing taxes to stabilize the budget.
A state senator for 15 years, Dardenne previously chaired the Senate Finance Committee.
One of the key themes that Dardenne already has begun to play up is pointing out various budget tactics that former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration used to plug holes in the budget.
“We have been in a deficit mode because of the fiction that we’ve been living in the past eight years,” Dardenne told legislative budget leaders, vowing that the Edwards administration won’t rely on one-time money to fix the budget moving forward. “Even if we had it, we wouldn’t do it, but let me tell you there’s none to find.”
Kimberly Robinson, Department of Revenue Secretary
As head of the Department of Revenue, Robinson will be the go-to person for the Edwards administration’s tax proposals, providing testimony and revenue estimates each step along the way. As the budget deficit has grown — from an expected $700 million when Edwards took office to the estimated $900 million that it stands at today, Robinson and her team have been closely monitoring other tweaks that could generate more revenue to cover the shortfall’s growth. Previously in the private sector, Robinson worked on Jones Walker LLP’s state and local tax team, but she has served as special counsel to former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and as a liaison to the Revenue Department.
Ben Nevers, Governor’s Chief of Staff
Nevers, a longtime state legislator from Bogalusa, was a well-respected conservative Democratic state senator before joining Edwards’ administration. Shortly after he was named to the post, even then-Gov. Bobby Jindal praised Edwards’ hiring decision. Nevers is expected to be a regular presence at the Capitol during session, pushing Edwards’ agenda. Nevers, an electrical contractor by trade, has strong ties to the labor community.
Erin Monroe Wesley, special counsel to the Governor’s Office
Wesley, former executive director and Chief Operating Officer of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, is expected to lead the development and execution of the governor’s legislative strategy. As BRAC’s vice president of governmental affairs, she lobbied on behalf of the chamber’s economic development priorities. Wesley previously served as a legal counsel to Blanco, former Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and the state Senate.
Noble Ellington, director of Legislative Affairs for the Governor
Ellington, who spent more than two decades in the state Legislature — first as a Democrat and then as a Republican — has been picked to serve as Edwards’ chief lobbyist this session, guiding the advancement of the governor’s agenda through the process. Ellington, of Winnsboro, was chairman of the Senate Labor, Judiciary A, Judiciary B and Transportation Committees while in that chamber. He also served on the House Appropriations Committee before leaving office and was the national chairman of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. A cotton merchant, Ellington had the reputation of being a social conservative. Ellington’s wife, Brenda, is an assistant to the House Speaker.
Former state Sens. Edwin Murray and Robert Adley
Murray and Adley have been brought on board to assist the Governor’s Office during the special session to advance Edwards’ agenda.
Adley, a Republican from Benton, spent more than three decades in the state Legislature, where he developed a reputation as a dogged fighter for his causes and a coveted ally in key battles. An ex-Marine and owner of Pelican Gas Management Co., Adley has been a staunch supporter of the oil and gas industry.
Murray, a New Orleans Democrat, is another longtime legislator who has been brought on to help push Edwards’ agenda and test the winds of the legislative chambers. Murray previously considered running for mayor of New Orleans, but went on to withdraw his bid.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger
Leger, a New Orleans Democrat who was initially Edwards’ pick for House Speaker but was rejected by House Republicans, will serve as a floor leader for the Governor’s Office and will sponsor key legislation backed by Edwards. According to the Governor’s Office, it has lined up other Democrats, as well as Republicans, to also sponsor Edwards’ agenda items. “You’ll see them filed very quickly. We’ve got that worked out,” Edwards said after a speech to the House and Senate to open the special session Sunday night.
Edwards has built a communications team of former journalists and strategists to help convey his message through the session via traditional news outlets, as well as social media and the governor’s newly-redesigned website.
Julie Baxter Payer is Edwards’ deputy chief of staff for communications, legal and special projects. A former spokeswoman for the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office, Payer covered the state government as a reporter for WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge before serving as a lawyer for the state Senate and in private practice. She has taken on a key role of providing additional information about the governor’s specific budget proposals in the run-up to the special session and is expected to continue that role, while also building on the relationships she formed in the state Legislature in her other roles.
Richard Carbo, Edwards’ communications director, was the key spokesman for the administration’s transition period. Carbo has previously worked for Blanco and former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and spent time in Washington, D.C., before returning to Louisiana to work for Edwards. His new role has made him key in responding to media inquiries and criticism of the administration.
Shauna Sanford recently was named Edwards’ press secretary. A former Louisiana Public Broadcasting staple, Sanford has a long career in radio and television broadcasting, having worked at WWL-TV in New Orleans, WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge and WJBO-AM. Her job includes working to hone Edwards’ message and disseminate it to the media.
Others to watch
House Speaker Taylor Barras and other House Republicans
New Iberia Republican Taylor Barras didn’t know he was about to hold the top spot in the House until literally hours before he won the chamber’s support. Edwards had picked fellow Democrat Walt Leger to become the next speaker, and Louisiana governors have, by tradition, been able to hand-select their legislative leaders. After some maneuvering within the House GOP, Barras emerged as a candidate that could build enough support to win the speaker’s race, thrusting Barras, a normally more reserved banker, into the spotlight. Barras, as well as House Republican Caucus Chair Lance Harris, of Alexandria, and House Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, will be key figures in the direction the session heads.
Senate President John Alario
Alario, R-Westwego, is often regarded as the most powerful person in the state Legislature, where he has served in one chamber or the other since the 1970s. Always seen as a key figure during session, lawmakers frequently seek out Alario’s blessing to advance legislation. The day after Edwards was elected, he and Alario met in New Orleans. Alario has named Democrats as the chairmen of his Finance and Revenue committees.
Higher education leaders
Higher education again finds itself on the chopping block as the state faces yet another fiscal cliff. Expect to see LSU President F. King Alexander, Higher Education Commissioner Joe Rallo and other advocates regularly in the State Capitol. Two rallies in support of higher education already have been scheduled.
Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.