For the sixth time, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and an increasingly Republican and conservative Legislature will be grappling to find common ground, this time on tax reform, carbon reduction, minimum wage and how to spend a one-time $3 billion budget lagniappe of federal money for COVID-19 relief.
In a non-traditional opening address to the Legislature, delivered from the Southern University football stadium Monday evening before a masked audience, including Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, Edwards outlined his legislative priorities for the 60-day regular session.
His hardest sells will be carbon reduction and increasing the current $7.25 minimum wage, a political hot potato Edwards lobbed squarely into the Legislature’s lap.
“I am one of the overwhelming majority of Louisianans who want a meaningful increase to the minimum wage that helps workers support their families and enjoy a better quality of life,” Edwards said in his 27-minute address. “This year, instead of including a specific minimum wage bill in my package — because I’ve tried that before about five times — I am supporting any and all efforts to raise the minimum wage. So my message to the Legislature is simple: Pass the bill, get it on my desk, and I’ll sign it.”
It has already received a frosty reception.
“Honestly, I did not listen to the address and I honestly don’t think a minimum wage hike is proper at a time our businesses are trying to recover from the pandemic,” Sen. Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville, whose District 26 overlaps Lafayette and Vermilion parishes, told The Current by email. “I also have a lot of concern about recovery budget increases when we are filling our budget with one-time federal dollars. We made that mistake with Katrina and Rita and we paid for it after. Recovery should be recurring.”
Not surprisingly, Democratic Rep. Vincent Pierre of District 44 in Lafayette had a different take.
“I agree with everything Gov. Edwards said in his speech,” Pierre said in an email response to The Current. “I strongly support his move to increase the minimum wage. No man or woman can support a family at $7.25 an hour. With the cost of things today, it would even be tough at $15 an hour, which is the goal in the bills that are before us.
“Many Republicans have drawn a line in the sand when it comes to minimum wage,” Pierre added. “They fight it tooth and nail because the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry tells them it would hurt business in Louisiana. The small business group says it would destroy Mom and Pop businesses. But is keeping their employees in poverty the right thing to do? They can’t afford healthcare, so when they or someone in their families get sick, they miss work.”
Regarding climate change, another issue that typically puts the governor at odds with Republicans and the state’s powerful business lobby, Edwards touted the creation of the Climate Initiatives Task Force and linked curbing climate change to salvaging Louisiana’s coastline.
“No state in our country is more adversely impacted by climate change than Louisiana,” the governor argued, “but at the same time, no state is better positioned to be a leader in reducing carbon emissions and bolstering resiliency. By 2050 our goal is to reduce carbon emissions to net zero and to invest $50 billion in rebuilding Louisiana’s coast.
“The reason I know we can get there is because we are working with, not against, the energy sector that sustains so much of Louisiana’s economy. We are going to make Louisiana more sustainable while at the same time unlocking a whole new sector of economic and job opportunities.”
This year’s odd-numbered session is limited largely to fiscal matters, such as tax reform. Edwards noted that the temporary .45-cent sales tax will expire before the next fiscal session in four years.
“True tax reform doesn’t just mean tax changes,” Edwards said. He repeated a warning made earlier this week that any tax reforms must be “revenue neutral,” meaning they don’t cost the state more than they save.
Needling former Gov. Bobby Jindal, Edwards said, “No one wants to go back to the mess I inherited and that we all had to deal with several years ago.”
UL Lafayette political science professor Pearson Cross, host of the KRVS-88.7 FM interview program “Bayou to Beltway,” sized up Edwards’ address.
“Mostly, it was a plea for working together to accomplish something positive for Louisiana and to continue dealing with the fallout of COVID-19,” Cross said by email.
Asked the likelihood for meaningful bipartisan cooperation, Cross said, “I suppose there is some possibility, but frankly, the Republicans have such overwhelming numbers that I’m not sure much ‘bipartisanship’ is needed for the Legislature to pass bills, leaving aside getting said bills past Edwards’ threat of a veto.”
Republicans hold a 69-35 advantage in the House, with one independent, and a veto-proof 27-12 majority in the Senate. Democrats nonetheless chair several key committees, the result of a deal struck to gain their support in Schexnayder’s bid for the speakership.
“If you mean bipartisan in the sense of passing the House and Senate and getting the governor’s signature, then I think there may be productive legislation to increase reporting requirements on Title IX following the LSU and attorney general scandals, to centralize the state’s tax collection [which, if it passed would be the landmark legislation for this session], and to refill the rainy-day fund and shore up the unemployment fund,” Cross added.
In his address, Edwards said his top priorities for the $3 billion from the American Rescue Act are replenishing the unemployment trust fund, infrastructure projects, paying down debt and expanding high-speed broadband to deprived areas.
He also stressed the need for pay increases for K-12 teachers and staff and for college professors (a popular idea in Lafayette), which isn’t covered by the ARA.
“I think all of those have good support,” Cross said. “I don’t think anything that isn’t revenue neutral will fly this session despite considerable support for tax reduction on the right. Raises for teachers and higher education faculty may be a rare exception to the revenue neutral rule. I think the Legislature will be relatively conservative regarding disposing of federal funds, mostly likely deferring some of them to the next couple of years in anticipation of leaner times [which is allowed for under the rules of the ARA].”
What won’t pass, according to Cross, are measures to restrict the governor’s powers during an emergency. “In any case, it’s a short session and with a redistricting special session likely on the horizon, the Legislature will be tempted to take a few victories and pack up, knowing they’ll be back,” he says.
Requests for comment from the other members of the Lafayette House and Senate delegations have not been answered.
The 60-day session ends June 10.