By Hunter Lovell and James A. Smith
LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE—Gov. John Bel Edwards struck an optimistic tone in his State of the State address on Monday at the Capitol to open the state Legislature's regular legislative session, though one other candidate for governor challenged the governor's optimism.
The tone of Edwards' remarks stood in sharp contrast to the last few sessions in which lawmakers fought extensively over how to solve state budget problems.
Edwards, a Democrat who is campaigning for re-election, pointed to how the state’s $2 billion deficit has turned into a surplus and said his top priority this year is pay raises for teachers.
At the top of the his legislative agenda, Edwards is seeking the Legislature's approval for $1,000 pay raises for public school teachers and $500 raises for school support personnel.
“Our teachers deserve more,” said Edwards, urging lawmakers to “step up” for teachers across the state.
Edwards also boasted about stabilizing funding for higher education and securing healthcare services.
“Through partnership rather than partisanship, we restored fiscal stability and put an end to the greatest budget crisis in our state’s history,’” Edwards said. He maintained that the “state is finally moving in the right direction.”
U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, and Eddie Rispone, a Republican businessman, were both in the House chamber as Edwards spoke. The two Republicans are challenging Edwards in this year’s governor’s race.
Abraham disputed Edwards’ notion that the state had made significant progress.
“The state is not okay,” Abraham said. “We’ve got a lot of problems. We’ve got a lot of issues, and we’re not addressing them. We’ve got to take this to a whole other level.”
“Right now, we’re not there,” Abraham said. “We don’t have the leadership that we’ve got to have to move that needle.”
Other Republicans expressed more optimism.
“I thought the governor’s speech was very upbeat,” Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said. “There will be differences of opinion from both sides, and if each side will listen to each other’s arguments, sometimes they’ll find out the other guy’s argument is not that bad.”
In the speech, Edwards touted his expansion of the state’s Medicaid program to include residents making up to 38 percent more than poverty levels. Roughly 480,000 people have enrolled.
Edwards told the story of a recovering addict who had received care through the expansion and is now becoming a paralegal. He also mentioned that no rural hospitals have closed since the expansion, both saving jobs and providing care to rural residents.
“We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Medicaid expansion is saving lives,” he said.
Edwards, however, did not mention the loose management controls that state auditors have criticized. In November, auditors found that the Louisiana Department of Health could have misspent $85 million on ineligible enrollees as well as misallocated funds to healthcare providers. After the audit, his administration implemented a new computer system meant to prevent abuse.
Edwards also expressed his support for protecting individuals with pre-existing conditions. Currently, 850,000 Louisiana residents have pre-existing health conditions and are covered under the federal Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
“I do not want the nearly one million Louisianans living with pre-existing conditions to get caught in the middle of Washington-style politics,” Edwards said. “They deserve better than that.”
Abraham said he hoped that there would be more bipartisanship in this year’s legislative session, but still insisted changes need to be made at the highest levels of the state.
Edwards said he is again looking to establish a minimum wage in the state of $9 an hour and close the wage gap between men and women.
State Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Baton Rouge) said the legislature was able to overcome budget deficits in recent years but will have different challenges for this session, with the governor’s minimum wage proposal likely to face significant hurdles.
Turning to the opioid epidemic, Edwards said he is supporting legislation to enhance data on opioid overdoses in the hopes of finding solutions. Deadly opioid overdoses in Louisiana have plateaued at a high rate. The state health department debuted a dashboard with drug overdose data in October.
Edwards, who is pro-life, mentioned that abortions in the state are at a 10-year low. That received roaring applause from both Republicans and Democrats.
He opened his speech with an observance of the recent burnings of three black Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish in just 10 days. The state Fire Marshal called them “suspicious.”
“Churches are sacred places, and no one should fear for their safety in their house of worship,” Edwards said.
Edwards also is supporting a bill to establish the Veterans First Business Initiative, a business directory that would allow people to search for goods and services from veteran-owned businesses.