Gov. John Bel Edwards marked the start of the first legislative session of the new term Monday by calling for increased funding for education programs and by promising to work together with the Republican-majority Legislature for the good of Louisiana.

Following tradition, the Democratic governor addressed a joint session of the House and Senate at 1 p.m. This time Edwards began by informing lawmakers that the first person in Louisiana had tested positive for the new coronavirus. He learned of this development about an hour before his speech, causing the governor to scramble to make changes to his address.

After talking about coronavirus, Edwards then shifted to the issues he wanted legislators to tackle during the 85-day annual session, which gaveled in at noon and must end by 6 p.m. on June 1.

He called early childhood education the No. 1 priority of his second term, emphasizing an issue that will likely gain bipartisan support. Edwards is proposing $25 million in additional funding for early childhood education programs in the budget, along with funding increases for K-12 public schools plus public colleges and universities.

“I know that it’s going to take some time to fully recover from years of budget cuts and stagnant funding in education,” Edwards said. “But we need to demonstrate to students, parents and educators that we are serious when we say we aren’t going back. We must do everything possible to make certain our children are ready for school from the very beginning.”

Edwards also wants a modest pay raise for public school teachers of about $500 per month. The governor didn't initially include money for a salary bump this year – teachers received a $1,000 increase last year – in the executive budget proposal. Edwards reversed course after individual teachers and their unions loudly noted that they had backed him in his successful reelection bid last fall. The governor told legislators he would bring teacher pay up to the Southern regional average before he leaves office in 2024.

The only Democratic governor in the Deep South, Edwards must work with a Republican-majority Legislature that is only two votes shy of being able to override his vetoes and ignore his wishes on budgetary issues if all Republicans vote against him. But newly elected House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, promised to work with Edwards and the Democrats toward pragmatic problem solving, albeit from conservative perspective, and put an end to the often bitter intransigence that have marked recent legislative sessions.

Probably the biggest issue of the session will be “tort reform.” Lawmakers have filed nearly a dozen “tort reform” bills that would limit the ability of individuals to file lawsuits against businesses. These lawmakers claim that a friendlier legal climate would lead to lower auto insurance rates.

Tort reform is the top priority for Republicans and business lobbyists.

Shortly after the governor’s speech the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry released a statement backing one of the measures, Senate Bill 418. “It is worth noting that this bill doesn’t just address the toxic legal climate that causes Louisiana’s high auto insurance rates – it also guarantees a concrete rate decrease,” LABI President Stephen Waguespack said in the press release.

Edwards, along with many lawyers and Democrats, question whether the dramatic changes will actually lower car insurance rates in Louisiana, which are the second highest on average in the country. But Edwards said he is willing to negotiate.

Edwards also repeated his support for a Democratic package of bills aimed at lowering car insurance rates by prohibiting the use of credit score, gender and other factors when insurers set rates.

“If in addition to real insurance reform you want to pursue other efforts, I am willing to sit down with you and discuss with a goal of finding common ground,” said Edwards, who received significant campaign support from the trial lawyers who represent plaintiffs in civil litigation.

“This lowering of car insurance rates, that’s the huge elephant in the room,” Schexnayder said in an interview. “We’ll go through each bill and see which ones have actual data to support them. …Both sides want to lower car insurance prices. There is a middle ground.”

Edwards touted his recently created advisory council on rural revitalization as a way to spur economic activity in rural parts of the state that are shedding population.

“As part of this council, we will be addressing everything from better broadband and infrastructure to more opportunities for apprenticeship programs and dual enrollment," he said. "And we’re going to continue to land major economic development deals - not only in bigger, urban areas, but also in more rural areas."

“I’m glad he’s taking notice,” said Rep. Jack McFarland, a Jonesboro Republican who chairs the House Agriculture Committee and has long pushed for more state attention to Louisiana’s rural areas.

To emphasize his interest, Edwards pointed out Kelvin Jackson in the audience, who in August announced creation of Lake Providence pipe fabrication facility that created 50 jobs.

“You bring in a factory that creates 50 jobs, that brings consumer dollars into an area that has few (dollars), helps local businesses and starts a progression that will grow over time to the possibility of attracting another factory that could create 500 jobs,” McFarland said.

The governor also continued his call – made each of the last four years – for the Republican-led Legislature to raise the minimum wage. Louisiana currently doesn’t have a minimum wage and reverts to the federal wage of $7.25 an hour. Edwards, who campaigned on the idea, is proposing to raise that to $10 an hour, a proposal facing long odds in the Legislature.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com