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2019: A Look Back At The Year In Louisiana Politics

Aurianna Cordero
LSU Reveille
Eddie Rispone, John Bel Edwards and Ralph Abraham square-off in the first debate of the governor's race September 19, 2019

Today, we're taking a look back at the year in Louisiana politics.

In 2019, we saw some things change and others stay the same.

Democrat John Bel Edwards earned another four years in the governor's mansion, but it was a lonely victory. Republicans won every other statewide race and have unprecedented control in the House and Senate.

And there were some changes on this program as well. Wallis Watkins has left Capitol Access, but she was kind enough to come back and talk through some of the big stories of 2019.

PB: Wallis, let’s start with the legislature. What stood out to you?

WW: Well, this year was the first in a long time that talk of a budget deficit or a fiscal cliff didn't suck all of the air out of the Capitol. After seven special sessions over the previous four years, legislators passed a sales tax extension in 2018. That meant that they were able to tackle other issues this year.

For example, public school teachers got a pay raise, more state money was sent to higher education and early childhood education. 

A lot of time the session was spent on bills that would regulate access to abortions in the state, and probably the biggest focus was on the heartbeat bill. This bill would ban abortions in Louisiana as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. 

It passed the legislature and it was signed into law by Gov. Edwards, but its fate is tied to a similar law in Mississippi that's making its way through the courts. The law would only go into effect if the Mississippi law is ruled constitutional, and that hasn’t happened yet.

PB: Governor Edwards and Republicans in the House and Senate found common ground on each of those issues, but things didn't always go so smoothly. What were some of the more contentious topics at the Capitol?

WW: Right, so the first thing that comes to mind was a standoff between Republican leaders in the House and governor Edwards that really slowed budget negotiations. 

For years, the legislature and the governor disagreed over how to handle budget shortfalls. In 2019, they were disagreeing over how much of a surplus the state had. While they eventually came to an agreement, it did take all of session.

It looks like lawmakers and the governor are having the same argument this year.

It was an election year, so issues that rose to the top were ones that would play well on the campaign trail this fall. You covered the election. What were your takeaways?

PB: Well, by far the biggest story was the reelection of John Bel Edwards. 

The Democratic incumbent faced two Republican challengers in the October primary. They were Congressman Ralph Abraham of Alto and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone. 

It was a bruising primary campaign. Most of the top Republicans in the state held off on endorsing a candidate until after the primary. Rispone eventually won a spot in the runoff and the support flowed in. 

WW: There was a big national influence in that race as well. 

PB: Absolutely. President Trump endorsed Rispone minutes after the primary results were announced and he rallied in the state three times. 

Rispone adopted Trump’s messaging from the start and hoped the president’s popularity here in Louisiana would propel him to victory. 

Edwards shied away from national politics. He focused on issues like Medicaid expansion and those teacher pay raises we talked about earlier and in the end that won the day.

WW: But besides losing the governor's race, Republicans won big this fall. How's that playing out so far?

PB: Well, the GOP was shooting for super majorities and both chambers of the legislature. They were successful in the Senate, but they fell two seats short in the House. 

Still, the body is more conservative than it has ever been. Term limits forced out many moderate Republicans-- folks that carried the governor's water in his first term. 

That's already having an effect on leadership races. Edwards has had less influence on that process than previous governors. 

This year, State Attorney General Jeff Landry and Sen. John Kennedy urge house Republicans to choose a Speaker amongst themselves and then unite behind that candidate-- essentially blocking Democrats from the process. They picked Sherman Mack from Albany. 

It's not a done deal though, whether or not a few Republican representatives break ranks remains to be seen. We'll know for sure in the organizational session that follows the inauguration of new members Jan. 13th.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.