A new year in the rest of the country means state legislatures are opening their sessions.
For Louisiana, a new year means the governor hits the road, as he will Monday at the Press Club of Baton Rouge, for his annual “Wishful Thinking Tour” that outlines his legislative priorities for the coming year.
Forty-four states begin their legislative sessions during the next two weeks — most on Monday or Tuesday — and the rest by March 5.
Republicans have 27 governors and will control both chambers in 30 states. Democrats hold 23 governorships and have full control of 18 state legislatures.
Regardless of the partisan hold, most of these general assemblies will consider pretty much the same issues: expanding Medicaid and cashing in on the newfound ability to tax the sales of out-of-state internet vendors. A third of the state legislatures will be looking at teacher pay raises and boosting public school funding.
Several states, including Texas and Maryland, are contemplating how far to expand sports betting, as Louisiana will do. New York and Illinois will consider legalizing marijuana to boost state revenues, which this state’s legislators more than likely won’t do.
Largely because of Mardi Gras, Louisiana will be the last legislature to convene, as usual, and will begin its 11th session since 2016 on April 8.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards does as his predecessors did and spends the weeks before the legislative session building support for his agenda. He’s had mixed results, and the Oct. 12 elections for governor, statewide officials and all 144 legislators add another element.
In the past, Edwards wanted criminal justice system changes to lower the percentage of the state’s residents imprisoned to somewhere below the ratios for North Korea and communist China. With the help from conservative Christians and the business communities, he succeeded.
Usually, however, Edwards’ legislative wish list runs aground on partisan shoals as did his ideas to restructure the state’s financial system. You’ll recall that a main reason for increasing sales taxes back in 2016 was to give lawmakers time to tackle a system with too many tax breaks to produce enough revenue to pay for services that nobody is willing to cut. That goal didn’t work out and now the sales taxes are on for the next six years just to balance the state budget.
This year, Edwards is pushing a roughly $1,000 pay raise for teachers and other school employees.
The politics on this issue is safer as his usual opponents in the Republican-majority House and Senate don’t want to be seen as blocking — particularly during an election year — nearly 49,000 public school teachers and nearly 39,000 auxiliary personnel from getting their first pay bump in a decade.
Edwards also is renewing his thrice failed bid to establish a minimum wage that is higher than the $7.25 federal minimum. But that’s more for igniting his political base than any demonstration of partisan precognition.
Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C. increased their minimum wages on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, Louisiana was not on that list. It's time for a modest increase for the hardworking people of our state,” Edwards tweeted soon thereafter.
The minimum wage in Arkansas is now $9.25. But Texas, Mississippi and Alabama remain at $7.25 as does Louisiana.
In the end, however, Edwards’ legislative wish list may his dreaming a dream of times gone by.
Edwards remains popular and has some support among Republican money men. With U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and Attorney General Jeff Landry out of the governor's race, only two relative unknowns, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto, and Baton Rouge contractor Eddie Rispone have said they would pick up the GOP mantel.
But this time Edwards won’t have Republican help trashing Gov. Bobby Jindal’s economic policies and the moral flaws of his chief rival, David Vitter. As the only Democrat elected statewide in a state that backed Donald Trump by 20 percentage points, Edwards must know that Republican tigers are looking to tear his dream apart.
Trump’s excess votes in 2016 — 398,484 additional ballots after beating Hillary Clinton — is more than half the 646,924 votes Edwards polled to win in 2015.
But Trump’s ability to rouse the angry but heretofore lazy voters should also worry GOP candidates trying to balance a “conservative outsider” candidacy in a state where all but one of the governmental institutions are controlled by Republicans. And a lot of GOP faithful treasure that insider status to protect their tax breaks and economic development incentives.
Trump’s excess votes, for instance, was nearly a third more than the 306,658 ballots Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin polled in December running as the institutional incumbent.