Gov. John Bel Edwards opened the 2023 Regular Legislative Session Monday with one last push for priorities he has promoted since his first year in office.
The recommendations he made during his final “State of the State Address” came on the heels of a $1.6 billion surplus due to federal relief funds and a 0.45-cent sales tax hike.
He urged lawmakers to use the surplus to invest in services and programs that long went underfunded.
Education ranks high on the list for Edwards, who wants lawmakers to stay the course on what he deemed “historically high investments” in higher education. He urged full funding of TOPS and Pell Grant dollars, along with maintenance and safety enhancements on campuses.
Edwards also asked lawmakers to waive fees for the higher education programs it grants to men and women in the Louisiana National Guard.
He urged legislators to approve a $3,000 annual pay raise for public school teachers and $1,500 for support personnel.
Lawmakers have approved pay hikes that totaled $3,300 during the past five years, but educators need higher compensation for the Louisiana K-12 to remain competitive with those in neighboring states, he said.
“We do not have enough teachers enrolled in college for education and we’re now in fierce competition with neighboring states to keep the teachers we have,” Edwards said. “Teachers deserve the raise I’m talking about but the people in our state who deserve that raise the most are our children.”
Part of that equation includes what he hailed as the largest state general fund investment in the history of early childhood education in the state’s history.
Edwards also urged lawmakers to continue improvements to healthcare.
In his first executive order as governor in 2016, Edwards extended healthcare coverage for the working poor.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again today: the easiest big decision I’ve made as governor,” he said.
In 2015, 22.7 percent of working-age adults in Louisiana did not have healthcare coverage.
By 2022, it had fallen to 9.4 percent, below the national average of 10.2 percent, he said.
Medicaid expansion is making a positive difference for so many families across our state.
“Unlike some of our neighboring states that didn’t expand Medicaid, we haven’t had a single rural hospital closure in our state – not one,” Edwards said.
Edwards also made one last push for gender equity in pay, along with a hike in minimum wage – two issues he has pushed since his first year in office.
He also made another push for pro-life legislation, including paid family and medical leave, exceptions for rape and incest with abortion, and an end to the death penalty.
Edwards said the death penalty costs the state tens of millions of dollars a year, and he contended it is “wholly inconsistent” with Louisiana’s pro-life values. Only one person has been executed in
Louisiana in the last 20 years, he said, while six people on death row have been exonerated.
At times, his speech seemed like a farewell message. Edwards discussed the hardships, triumphs, and tragedies that have characterized his years in office.
“This is where I asked for your help on the budget and where I announced we were in a state of emergency due to COVID-19,” he said. “And it’s where I’ve announced immense progress we’ve made despite immense challenges.”
Edwards alluded to the racial turbulence and riots during the summer of 2016, along with the floods that followed one month later.
He also mentioned the devastation from hurricanes Laura and Ida, along with national championships LSU has won in football, women’s basketball and the Heisman Trophy Joe Burrow won in 2019.
Edwards also hailed the improvement in the unemployment figures, now at 3.6 percent – a far cry from 5.9 when he took office in January 2016 and 7.2 at the height of COVID-19.
He also lauded an economy that has led to more than 340 economic development programs representing $106 billion in projected capital investment across the state.
The state cannot afford to rest on its laurels, he said.
“We may have been weary at times and we never wavered, but challenges have been made and promises have been kept and progress has been delivered,” Edwards said. “Our work is far from over.”
Edwards urged the next administration to continue the path toward fiscal reform.
“Right now, we can’t afford to squander an opportunity to continue critical generational investment – something that would have seemed incomprehensible eight years ago,” he said.
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