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Edwards opens 2022 legislative session with a pitch to spend big on infrastructure and education

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Alex Tirado
/
WRKF
Gov. John Bel Edwards delivers his State of the State address to mark the beginning of Louisiana's 2022 Regular Legislative Session. March 14, 2022.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards opened the 2022 legislative session outlining his plan to spend an unprecedented influx in one-time money and previewing the legislation he will support during the three-month session that ends June 6.

Speaking two years to the day after Louisiana marked its first death from COVID-19, Edwards said Louisiana was ready to move beyond the fights over emergency declarations and public health orders.

COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have dropped sharply since the omicron variant faded in Louisiana last month, and Edwards told lawmakers that for the first time in 24 months he will not extend his public health emergency declaration when it expires on Wednesday.

Edwards said he consulted the State Department of Health and the Louisiana National Guard to make sure repealing the order would not negatively impact federal aid but told lawmakers that he would not hesitate to reinstate the order if the virus surges again.

The biggest question facing lawmakers and Edwards this year is how to spend more than $2 billion in one-time money.

State lawmakers have already begun debate on the executive spending plan Edwards’ released earlier this year and reviewed on Monday.

Edwards put an emphasis on using one-time dollars on infrastructure projects that have been deferred for decades. The governor’s proposal would allocate $500 million for a new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge, $100 million for a bridge in Lake Charles and another $500 million for water and sewer improvements across the state.

“These dollars are being strategically placed to best leverage federal dollars for Louisiana,” Edwards said. “We are all tired of the jokes about knowing you've entered Louisiana when the roads get bad.”

But the proposal to put what amounts to a $500 million down-payment on the Baton Rouge bridge has drawn opposition from prominent Republicans and members of Edwards’ own party. Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, both Republicans, and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Sam Jenkins said last week that they are hesitant to set aside such a large sum for a project that will likely take more than a decade to come to fruition.

Edwards does have one influential supporter in his effort to fund the bridge project: Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder.

Edwards also proposes sending $550 million of federal relief from the American Rescue Plan to the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which was depleted by high jobless claims during the pandemic. That investment would increase the balance in the fund enough to avoid automatic payroll tax increases that would otherwise take effect this fall. But the move has been panned by groups like the Louisiana Budget Project, who claim that money could be better spent on programs that immediately benefit low-income Louisianans.

As state economists predict a rosier than expected revenue forecast for the coming years, Edwards is proposing big, long-term investments in education at every level.

Edwards has proposed a $1,500 per year pay raise for K-12 teachers and a $700 raise for school support staff as part of his multi-year push to bring the state’s teacher salaries on par with the Southern regional average.

The raises come with a total price tag of $148 million, but the governor has proposed increasing that by $50 million dollars to bump that raise to $2,000 — if the state’s economic outlook continues to improve.

Edwards has also proposed devoting $32 million to higher education faculty raises, a $43 million hike in state spending on early childhood education and a $100 per month pay increase for first responders.

“This is a balanced budget that is responsible, transformational, and continues my administration’s practice of only using one-time dollars for one-time expenses,” Edwards said. “We are not going back to the days of deficits, fiscal cliffs and one-time dollars for recurring expenditures.”

The spring legislative session begins with Edwards and state lawmakers still at an impasse over how to redraw the boundaries of the political districts the state will use for the next decade.

Last week, Edwards vetoed a redistricting proposal passed by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature that failed to include the second majority-Black congressional district that civil rights groups say Louisiana, with its 33% Black population and six seats in congress, needs to come into compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act.

Republican legislative leaders have said they will attempt to override Edwards veto later this month. A coalition of civil rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and American Civil Liberties Union, stand ready to sue the state if that override is successful.

“Having personally witnessed redistricting twice now, I can say that the current process is not working,” Edwards said, who was a state lawmaker during the 2011 redistricting cycle. “That is why I am supporting legislation to establish an independent redistricting commission to support the Legislature in reapportionment for future redistricting.”

Rep. Cedric Glover (D-Shreveport) has filed a measure that if passed would make Louisiana the 19th state to shift redistricting responsibilities from the legislature to an independent redistricting commission.

“I don’t believe that we should need a court to tell us how to do basic math,” Edwards said. “One-third of six is two.”

Later in the speech, Edwards denounced calls to defund the police — which have gained no real traction in Louisiana — but said he will support legislation to offer greater police accountability, including measures that would allow departments to more effectively fire bad actors.

He made no mention of Ronald Greene, the Black motorist whose death at the hands of Louisiana State Troopers sparked a federal investigation and two state legislative probes into the incident and its aftermath.

Edwards threw his support behind some measures with bipartisan appeal, including insurance reform efforts to help hurricane victims and bills to set up the regulatory framework for a potential offshore wind energy industry in the Gulf of Mexico.

While Edwards touted a handful of issues he was eager to address with Republican lawmakers, the GOP has pushed filed dozens of bills that fit into the larger “culture war” the party is waging in statehouses across the country. So far, lawmakers have filed bills to ban transgender girls from school sports and gender-affirming care for minors, curtail vaccine requirements and vaccine accessibility programs in schools, limit discussions of race in the classroom.

Without naming specifics, Edwards said some of the legislation was “reminiscent of a dark past that we should learn from, not repeat.”

“Some of the bills being brought up this session do nothing to make lives better, nothing to continue moving us forward,” Edwards said. “They only serve to divide us.

And Edwards reiterated his call for lawmakers to raise the minimum wage and close the gender pay gap, two causes he has unsuccessfully championed each year since he took office.

Alex Tirado and Bethany Bissell contributed to this report.