TOWN TALK – John Bel Edwards knew he was stepping into a “tough situation” when he was elected governor in 2015.
The state faced a budget deficit of more than $900 million in his first year in office, with a much larger one projected the following year. The only way out of the hole was raising new revenue, making even more painful spending cuts or some combination of both.
Three years later, Louisiana is on sounder financial footing, and Edwards is playing up his administration’s role in that to voters as he seeks re-election.
“You know what things are like today,” Edwards told members of the North Rapides Business and Industry Alliance at an appearance in Pineville Monday. “And you remember what it was like in 2015. It wasn’t that long ago.”
Edwards, a Democrat, argues that budget stability and a growing economy are allowing Louisiana to funnel money into long-neglected areas, though his Republican challengers disagree vehemently on the health of the state’s economy.
Many of the recent “strategic investments” Edwards highlighted Monday are in education.
They include nearly $20 million invested into early childhood care and education, which he said is “the most effective way to close the achievement gap” for children from low-income families.
Public K-12 schools got an additional $140 million in funding, most of it to cover a pay raise for teachers and support staff, but close to $40 million allocated to school districts for discretionary spending.
Louisiana’s colleges saw an increase of $47 million in funding to, among other things, ensure that the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students is fully funded.
“We’re doing better,” Edwards said. “We still have our challenges; you all know that. But, relatively speaking, we can meet our challenges from a position of strength rather than a position of weakness, which wasn’t the case before.”
Edwards also touted Medicaid expansion and criminal justice reform as successes during his first term, as well as redirecting settlement money from the BP oil spill into nearly $700 million in road and bridge projects, the largest transportation spending bill since the Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development in 1989.
“Medicaid expansion is pro-life, too,” said Edwards, who often cites his pro-life views and signed into law one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the nation. “It comes from the same place. There is no doubt in my mind that there are people in Louisiana who are alive today who wouldn’t be alive if we did not expand Medicaid.”
In what will likely be the most contentious divide in the election, Edwards talked up Louisiana’s economy, citing growth in gross domestic product and income, and lower unemployment.
His challengers — U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone — prefer to focus on metrics where Louisiana has grown slower than the national average and jobs reports that show stagnant job growth, or even job losses.
“I’m excited about our state and excited about our future,” Edwards said.
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