JBE

Advocate file photo of Governor John Bel Edwards

In case anyone watching Gov. John Bel Edwards deliver his legislative session-opening speech Monday didn’t notice how much the fall elections hung over the proceedings, they only needed to look at the podium behind Edwards. There, alongside legislative leaders and the usual statewide officials, stood U.S. Ralph Abraham, one of two Republicans set to challenge the Democratic incumbent in October.

Abraham had to hold his tongue, though, while Edwards took his time in getting to his agenda for the session. First came something of an extended victory lap over what he’s done already.

Edwards pointed to the fact that, for the first time in his term, he wasn’t there to talk budgetary doom and gloom. The fiscal cliff has been averted, higher ed and health care are not on the chopping block, and there’s actually money to invest in neglected needs, he said.

“Unlike in the past, today, we have the opportunity to put our names on a budget we can all be proud of. All we have to do is recognize the revenue right in front of us,” he said. That last line was meant for an audience of one, House Speaker Taylor Barras, who has used his position on the Revenue Estimating Conference to unilaterally block money in economists’ forecasts from being spent. Talk about election-year politics.

Also on Edwards’ “done” list were Medicaid expansion, impressive strides in foster care and adoption, economic development wins and criminal justice reform.

His to-do list for this final session of his first term is more modest. Edwards pushed the teacher pay raise that he and many legislators support, starting at $1,000 this year for teachers and $500 for support staff, as well as a potentially more controversial increase in direct aid to schools.

He talked up efforts to protect people with pre-existing conditions from losing their health coverage, now that a lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act — backed by Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry over Edwards’ strenuous objection — is working its way through the courts. Edwards endorses one bill and Landry another, although they’re not too different. But Edwards wants to make sure that everyone knows the backstory as well.

“I hope as we move forward through this session that there is a very robust discussion about how we can continue to protect those, like my daughter and like so many other family and friends, with pre-existing conditions,” he said. “And we should have a robust discussion about why that coverage is now at risk.”

Also on the governor’s agenda are two long-stalled items, a minimum wage hike and efforts to overcome Louisiana’s wage gap between men and women. The new twist here is that Edwards is now backing a constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage, in effect asking lawmakers to let the people decide. Chances are they’d say yes, based on similar votes in other conservative states such as Arkansas. The challenge for Edwards is in lining up the supermajority in each house needed to put the measure on the ballot in the first place.

Edwards ended his speech with one of his go-to themes, his contention that there’s more that unites Louisianans than divides them.

That may be true outside the Capitol. But as Monday's proceeding hinted, this legislative session could be as divisive as usual.


Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.