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U.S. Representative Ralph Abraham, R-La., center, shakes hands with Gov. John Bel Edwards, right, with moderator Robert Travis Scott, Public Affairs Research Council president, at left, at the conclusion of the non-partisan PAR gubernatorial forum held Thursday, April 11, 2019 at Crown Plaza Hotel Baton Rouge. Candidate Eddie Rispone had a prior engagement.

Gov. John Bel Edwards opened the 2019 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature with a kumbaya appeal for both sides to work together instead of falling into partisan bickering, which was the hallmark of most of his three years as governor.

“Because of our willingness to come together and put the people of Louisiana first, our state is finally moving in the right direction,” Edwards said in his speech Monday. He was speaking of the deal cut after 10 meetings of the Legislature that stabilized chronic deficits by raising sales taxes and suspending a number of tax breaks. 

The dream may be of collaboration, but elections are coming, and the reality of the Legislature's first week leaned more toward partisanship.

“I kind of feel like I was living in an alternate reality,” state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, told a Baton Rouge Republican luncheon Tuesday about listening to the governor’s speech. “He said, 'in partnership, not partisanship.' Yet, he is the single most partisan governor this state has ever had.”

Edwards mentioned the LSU annual survey of where the state electorate stands on various issues and noted that for the first time in a long time, the percentage of Louisiana residents who say the state is heading in the right direction is up dramatically.

Left unmentioned were the survey’s findings that the public’s confidence in state government to tackle these problems remains low and that 80% do not expect the parties to work together to solve problems. A sizable majority — 57% — would like the politicians to work together “rather than to stand up for their positions at the cost of getting little done.”

On Wednesday, House Speaker Taylor Speaker Barras released his four-month hold and recognized that the state is bringing in more money than originally anticipated. He has been vilified for what’s been called a partisan stand aimed at embarrassing the governor, who wanted the higher number to be recognized to fully fund more services.

Former Senate Finance Committee Chair Jack Donahue, however, points to talk like that of MarketWatch, which reported last week the “drumbeat of warnings about a looming worldwide recession is growing ever louder.” The Mandeville Republican said it would be prudent for Louisiana to prepare by ratcheting back spending plans. “I’m seeing a rosier picture being painted about revenues in the state than is in general practice in the business” community, he said during a committee hearing.

The purpose of legislative gatherings is for people with disparate views to hammer out a compromise for how best to run the state.

But high-toned public debate will be in short supply this spring as politicians prepare for this fall’s elections using rhetoric that leans more to exaggeration than to empathy.

Edwards, who is seeking reelection as the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, shared the stage Thursday with one of his GOP opponents, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto. (The other announced candidate, Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, had a conflicting event and did not show.)

Edwards trumpeted turning annual deficits into a somewhat stable financial structure for the next seven years that already has led to surpluses. He warned of allowing the state to slide back into the fiscal “disaster” of the Gov. Bobby Jindal era. “The people of Louisiana know they’re doing better,” Edwards told the forum sponsored by Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana.

Abraham called the state’s current budget surplus “someone else’s money” and, several times, lamented that Louisiana is last on all the lists of good attributes and first on all the lists of the bad. That’s been the go-to candidate cliché since at least 1971 when U.S. Rep. Speedy Long, Huey’s cousin, whipped that saw in his quixotic run for governor. Long came in eighth. By the way, four of the seven governors since that campaign 48 years ago have been Republican.

One historical factor to remember about this legislative and campaign season is that from Sam Houston Jones to Buddy Roemer, Louisiana voters have ousted after one term reform governors who tackled the tough tasks, then restored the politicians representing the same ole, same ole.

On this point, conservative radio icon Moon Griffon last week was potentially more prescient than he usually is when he predicted Edwards could very well lose the gubernatorial contest this fall. President Donald Trump in 2016 polled more Louisiana votes than any other politician in history. If the “mad as hell” segment of the electorate shows up in 2019, Edwards will lose regardless of how well legislators work together these next two months and who becomes the Republican standard-bearer over the next six months.


Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.