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Politics

GOP Lawmakers And Gov. Edwards Present Vastly Different Agendas, Approaches To Fight Against COVID-19

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Paul Braun
/
WRKF
Gov. John Bel Edwards delivers his annual State of the State Address at Southern University's A.W. Mumford Stadium in Baton Rouge, LA. April 12, 2021.

As Louisiana lawmakers gaveled in the 2021 Legislative Session on Monday, Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards presented two vastly different agendas and two vastly different approaches to the state’s ongoing fight against COVID-19.

Monday afternoon, GOP lawmakers struck a tone and staked out an agenda reminiscent of pre-pandemic Louisiana, focusing on tax reform legislation, sports betting regulation, changes to the state’s election laws, and proposals that would limit the rights of transgender youth.

Hours later, Edwards presented a familiar agenda of his own, characterizing failed initiatives from past sessions as pandemic relief measures, like legislation to increase the state’s minimum wage, close the gender pay gap and allow for pay transparency. He also expressed his desire to spend more money on education at all levels, and set his priorities for spending the $3.2 billion coming to the state through the federal government’s latest COVID relief bill.

Instead of addressing lawmakers in a joint session on the crowded floor of the State House of Representatives, Edwards delivered his annual “State of the State” address outdoors at Southern University’s A.W. Mumford Stadium to better comply with the CDC’s COVID-19 social distancing recommendations.

Edwards reflected on the hardships faced and the Louisianans lost during the state’s 13-month battle against the coronavirus. Since last March, more than 10,000 Louisianans have died of COVID-19 — making it the third leading cause of death in the state, according to Edwards.

“Numbers alone don’t begin to tell the whole story,” Edwards said. “Nothing can measure the pain of a family celebrating their first holiday with an empty seat at the dinner table.”

But Edwards touted the state’s mass vaccination effort as a source of hope. So far, 28 percent of the state’s population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“A new day is dawning with every shot in every arm,” Edwards said.

Edwards’ Legislative Agenda

Edwards also reviewed some of the highlights of his $36.6 billion spending plan.

The governor is calling for a $400 annual pay increase for K-12 teachers at Louisiana public schools and a $200 bump for school support staff. The $40 million initiative is a continuation of Edwards’ multi-year plan to bring the state’s teacher salaries in line with the southern regional average.

He has proposed an $80 million increase in higher education spending that would include the first pay raise for the state’s public university faculty in 15 years, an additional $13 million for the TOPS scholarship program, and $11 million for Go Grants for low-income students.

And Edwards called for a pay increase for minimum wage workers, calling the current $7.25 hourly rate mandated by the federal government “woefully inadequate.”

“We call essential workers heroes for continuing to work throughout this pandemic,” Edwards said. “Yet, even when they work full time, we don’t pay them enough to cover their essential needs.”

Each year since taking office, Edwards has thrown his support behind a single, ultimately doomed bill to set a state minimum wage above the federal limit. This year, he says he will not back any one measure, but he supports the effort as a whole.

“Pass a bill,” Edwards said. “I’ll sign it.”

Republican Legislators’ Priorities

Edwards also weighed in on the GOP’s top priority for the session: tax reform. The Democratic governor said he would be willing to sign off on the legislation as long as it avoids any deep cuts to the state’s expected revenue.

Edwards spent much of his first term wrestling with the legislature to pass revenue-raising measures that would address the “fiscal cliff.” Lawmakers ultimately settled on a $0.45 increase in the state sales tax. That increase is set to expire in 2025, potentially reducing annual state revenue by $500 million.

“True tax reform doesn’t just mean tax change,” Edwards said. “While we can and should make reforms, they must be revenue neutral. No one wants to go back to the fiscal mess I inherited.”

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder filed legislation to centralize the collection of state sales tax, taking the burden of sales tax collection away from local police juries and sheriffs’ offices. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry has highlighted Schexnayder’s bill as its top legislative priority this session, and the heads of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and Police Jury Association of Louisiana — two organizations that opposed previous efforts to centralize sales tax collection — have come out in support of Schexnayder’s measure.

The House Ways and Means Committee will consider the measure, which already has the support of Senate President Page Cortez, on Tuesday.

“We have an opportunity to create generational change for the future of Louisiana,” Cortez said in a statement. “Old policies keep us as a major outlier to businesses because of our complex and costly tax structure.”

Some Republican lawmakers have also indicated that they will advocate for shifting the state to a flat income tax system modeled after a change made in 2011 by their Republican counterparts in North Carolina.

Lawmakers and the governor will also have to agree on how to spend $3.2 billion in additional federal coronavirus relief dollars coming to the state as a result of the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress earlier this year.

Last year, Edwards and lawmakers bickered over how federal relief dollars should have been spent. The governor and Democratic state lawmakers wanted to direct the majority of the federal aid to local government to stabilize their budgets and defray the costs of their coronavirus response, but Republican legislators carved out hundreds of millions of dollars for small business relief grants.

This time Edwards and lawmakers appear to be on the same page. They intend to direct the majority of relief dollars to the state’s dwindling Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and one-time expenditures for transportation infrastructure projects. Unprecedented demand for state unemployment benefits nearly emptied the once-healthy fund, which had a balance of more than $1 billion in late 2019, and forced the state to borrow from the federal government to keep benefits flowing.