AMERICAN PRESS — Governor John Bel Edwards took a victory lap Thursday touting a turnaround for the state since taking office in 2016.
Edwards weighed in on the state’s economic future and challenges in moving the state forward while addressing a crowd of 150 Jeff Davis Parish residents and elected officials at the Welsh Rotary Club.
Edwards highlighted what he considered major accomplishments for the state since becoming governor including stabilizing the budget, recordlow employment rates and more investments in education.
Edwards said he took office in 2016 with a $2 billion budget deficit, the largest in the state’s history. In addition, $3 billion had been taken from trust funds and spent on recurring expenditures over the previous eight years and was gone.
“It was a very, very challenging situation,” he said.
After working with state lawmakers to stabilize the economy, generate more revenue and implement cost saving measures, there is light at the end of the tunnel, he said.
“Our state is in a better place today than it was in 2015 in many ways,” he said. “That budget deficit is in our rearview mirror, it’s over. That fiscal cliff that you heard so much about that is also in our past. Our economy is performing much better and has never performed better than it is right now.”
The size of the state’s economy is the largest it has ever been in the state’s history, he boosted.
And for the first quarter of 2019, the state’s gross domestic product exceeds $256 billion and the growth rate for the quarter is 3.8 percent, which is the 10th fastest growing economy in the country, he said.
Personal income is also at an all-time high and growing faster than the national average, he said. The state’s unemployment is also at a historic low of 4.3 percent — the lowest it has been in 11 years, he said.
“This is what’s happening around the state right now and one of the reasons we are having success is that we made a commitment that we were going to stabilize all of higher education — our community and technical colleges, our four-year universities,” he said. “If you want to inspire confidence in someone making an investment decision about whether they want to expand their operations in our state or create a new presence in our state, you’ve got to first make sure they are comfortable that they’re going to have the educated skill and trained employees they need to be successful. If you can’t make them comfortable they are not coming to Louisiana. Those dollars are not coming and those opportunities are not going to be here.”
Since increasing support for higher education and overcoming its budget deficit, projects have been coming to Louisiana, he said.
In the last three-and-half years, the state has seen over 160 major economic development projects, more than $39 billion in new capital investments. More than 34,000 new jobs have been created and more than 30,000 jobs have been retained because of those projects, Edwards said.
“We have a tremendous amount of momentum because we take a different approach to economic development,” he said.
He said the state is giving money to higher education to create education opportunities and training programs to keep employees and to provide jobs and rewarding careers at home for younger generations.
“I’m excited about what we are doing in Louisiana and when you talk about Southwest Louisiana on per capita basis, when talk about investment and job growth for the last several years, there’s not been a hotter market anywhere in the United States,” he said.
The LNG explosion is really benefiting Southwest Louisiana along with other petrochemical industries and chemical engineering.
“We’re in a better place and moving in a much better direction and I enjoy working with folks in Jeff Davis Parish,” he said.
Last month he announced that Lacassine Operating Company will invest $12.5 million to construct a catalyst blending plant at the Rail Logix terminal in Lacassine and a state funded $10 million jail complex recently opened in Jennings.
“That’s the sort of partnerships we can have when we are stable and doing better,” he said.
Edwards also celebrated other successes of the state including the expansion of Medicaid which has saved the state over $300 million in uninsured health care. Today 455,000 working poor men and women in the state have health insurance that didn’t have it before, he said.
Of the 455,000, 2,900 are residents of Jeff Davis Parish.
“It was the right thing to do and we are going to continue to work to make sure we improve our health care outcomes in Louisiana,” he said. “This was a big step forward for us and it’s paying dividends right now.”
In addition to expanding Medicaid, for the first time in 10 years the state has been able to give certified teachers and support workers “a long overdue and much deserved” pay raise this year. he said.
“The most important ingredient for quality education is to have a highly profession, well educated, motivated teacher teaching within his or her area of certification,” he said.
The state continues to work with school districts to attract and retain the best teachers so that students can have the best possible education possible, he said.
The state has also invested more many in higher education and increased the funding formula for school districts with 70 percent of the funding going to the classrooms. An additional $20 million has also been allotted for early childhood to reach more young children.
“Schools in Louisiana do about as good of job as schools anywhere educating students that show up to school ready to learn,” he said. “We have way more than our fair share of kids that show up to school at kindergarten and they are not ready to learn and we don’t do a very good job at catching them up, but the truth is no school system anywhere does a good job catching them up. They just don’t start off the way we do.”
Edwards said early childhood education is the key to making sure more children show up to kindergarten ready to learn without being behind.
Edwards said the state still faces challenges and struggles in many areas including education and health care, but said the state can attack them from a position of strength by working together.
“I want to encourage all of you to be as optimistic as I am about our state because we are doing better and our future is bright,” he said. “Now there is no doubt our kids and grandkids are going to have a better Louisiana than we had.”