Edwards Stresses Education on First Day of Legislative Session

BATON ROUGE – On the first day of the 2020 legislative session, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards stressed “investments in education at every level” during his State of the State address.

“I know that it’s going to take some time to fully recover from years of budget cuts and stagnant funding in education,” he said. “But we need to demonstrate to students, to parents and to educators that we are serious when we say we aren’t going back.”

Early childhood education is the “number one priority” of his second term, he said, calling for $25 million in new money. He is also calling for an additional $39 million for K-12 education, which he is urging school systems to dedicate to teacher raises as part of a process begun last year to increase teacher pay to at least the regional average.

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Edwards also is proposing a $30 million increase for higher education while funding the TOPS and Go Grant scholarship programs “at their highest level ever.”

“For ten years, Louisiana disinvested in higher education more than anywhere else in the country, and we suffered the consequences,” he said. “For the next 10 years, let’s commit to reinvesting in higher education in order to strengthen our state.”

Edwards called for expanding the number of Jobs for America’s Graduates programs, which serves at-risk youth, from 124 to 200 by the end of his second term.

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Edwards stressed the importance of diversifying the economy. He said his newly formed rural revitalization advisory council will focus on “everything from better broadband and infrastructure to more opportunities for apprenticeship programs and dual enrollment.”

Edwards will push for legislation that would establish a state minimum wage of $9 per hour Jan. 1 that rises to $10 an hour six months later. Another bill he supports seeks to prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who discuss or disclose their salary, and bar employers from asking an applicant’s salary history as a condition of employment.

Studies show that pay transparency leads to more equity in how much employees are paid, he said.

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“It is simply unacceptable that Louisiana continues to have the largest gender pay gap in the country,” Edwards said. “Quite frankly, I’m ashamed of that. All of us should be ashamed.”

Louisiana maternal mortality rates exceed the national average, and black women are four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death, he said. Edwards plans to enact a Maternal Mortality Review to ensure that any hospital or birthing center has written policies and procedures to investigate any maternal death and to do so in a timely manner.

Edwards also is supporting a series of bills by state Sen. Jay Luneau that would ban auto insurance companies from basing rates on gender, credit score, losing a spouse or being deployed in the military. Auto insurance rates should be based on driving records, he argues.

“If in addition to real insurance reform you want to pursue other efforts, I am willing to sit down with you and discuss with a goal of finding common ground,” Edwards said, presumably referring to various changes to the state’s civil legal system some legislators say could lead to lower rates.

Near the end of his speech, he urged lawmakers to work with him to encourage Louisiana residents to participate in the 2020 Census.

“Despite the obvious challenges that we face, I am as optimistic as ever about the future of this great state,” Edwards said. “And I look forward to forging new partnerships this session as we enter a new year, a new term, and a new chapter for Louisiana.”

This year’s session begins with more fresh faces than usual after term limits forced out many veteran lawmakers. The 105-member House of Representatives has 45 new members, including two former state senators, while the 39-member Senate includes 20 newbies, including 10 who moved over from the House.

“This new legislature brings a fresh perspective to Baton Rouge, said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican. “We hope the Governor makes good on his promise to work with us to deliver results for Louisiana families.”

Hewitt leads the state Senate’s Republican delegation, which holds a veto-proof supermajority. Rep. Blake Miguez, who represents Iberia and Vermilion Parishes, leads a House Republican majority that is two positions shy of holding two-thirds of the seats.

“There are several issues facing our state and now is time for action,” Miguez said. “Republicans in both chambers are excited to get to work on the kitchen table problems we were sent here to solve.”

Dawn Starns, who directs the Louisiana chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, said Edwards was “tone deaf” not address tort reform directly, given that many members were elected promising to change the state’s legal climate.

Edwards once again called for a higher minimum wage and measures meant to address gender pay equality even though similar measures repeatedly were defeated last term, Starns noted. The NFIB says raising the minimum wage would cost the state thousands of jobs.

“The pay gap is closing,” she said. “We certainly support equal pay as a policy, because it is the law, but we really do have concerns over these employer mandates that he’s talking about… It’s not at all business-friendly.”

By many measures of the state’s economy and state government’s fiscal health, Louisiana is better off than it was when Edwards took office. But other numbers show the state lagging behind much of the nation, which is on a nearly decade-long economic growth streak.

Over the course of 2019, Louisiana had an average unemployment rate of 4.8 percent, compared to a national average of 3.7 percent. Meanwhile, the state’s population fell by 4,000 and the civilian labor force decreased by 9,000, said the  Pelican Institute for Public Policy, citing federal statistics.

“If Louisiana wants to break this trend,” the conservative think tank says in a recent commentary, “our elected officials will need to spend the next three months of the legislative session doing the hard work of passing fundamental reforms to address the key problems holding us back.”

 

By David Jacobs of the Center Square

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