By Piper Hutchinson
LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE—Just over two years after the first COVID death in Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Monday that the public health emergency will expire on Wednesday, crediting the availability of vaccines, antivirals, and quality masks.
“Just because the proclamation is expiring doesn’t mean COVID is over,’’ he said. “If the circumstances call for it, I will not hesitate to declare another emergency.”
“But God willing, we will never have to see such difficult mitigation measures in our state again,” he added.
In his annual state-of-the-state address to the Legislature, Edwards said Louisiana also is in a better fiscal situation, and he laid out his proposals to spend several billions of dollars of federal aid money and surplus state tax revenues.
“At my first state of the state, I had just inherited a billion-dollar budget deficit to close out that fiscal year and a two-billion-dollar deficit for the year that started July 1, 2016,” Edwards said. “Today, as I stand here before you, we have hundreds of millions in surplus, even more in current year excess, and billions in federal funding.”
As the Legislature opened its regular session, Edwards called for much of the windfall to go to his budget priorities first announced in January. Edwards would make investments in education at every level, including teacher and professor pay raises, spending $1 billion on infrastructure improvements and $550 million to replenish the unemployment insurance trust fund.
Under his proposals, K-12 teachers would receive $1,500 annual raises, and $500 million would be set aside for the construction of a new bridge over the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge.
“This is a balanced budget that is responsible, transformational, and continues my administration’s practice of only using one-time dollars for one-time expenses,” Edwards said. “It’s a promise I made six years ago and one that I have not deviated from. We are not going back to the days of deficits, fiscal cliffs, and one-time dollars for recurring expenditures.”
Republicans, who hold roughly two-thirds of the seats in the Legislature, have their own ideas about how some of the money should be spent and are likely to challenge Edwards, a Democrat, on some of his proposals. Republican lawmakers also could renew efforts to rein in Edwards’ power to declare public health emergencies.
Edwards also highlighted disaster legislation that he will support. One bill, put forward by Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, would strengthen tenant protections following a hurricane.
The governor also announced his support for insurance reforms, touting a package of bills centering on hurricane deductibles, transparency, preventing mortgage companies from withholding insurance money and holding bad actors accountable for insurance fraud.
“It’s also unacceptable that many residents are more scared of their insurance companies than the storm itself,” he said.
While Edwards has not specified which bills he is supporting, there are a number of insurance bills put forward by legislators of both parties that focus on post-hurricane reforms. Edwards committed to working with bill authors to come to a bipartisan solution.
Edwards also touted his Climate Initiatives Task Force and reiterated his goal to lower Louisiana’s emissions to “net-zero” by 2050. Edwards claimed that the investments made in renewable energy will create over 1,000 jobs.
“Combating climate change is just as much about economic development as it is about anything else,” Edwards said. “Ultimately, our motivation for advancing clean energy should be preserving the land we are so very blessed to call home so that Louisiana will not be washed away.”
Edwards asked the Legislature, as he normally does each year, to increase the minimum wage and to close the gender pay gap by passing pay transparency legislation.
“There is not a person in this room who can tell me with a straight face that $7.25, a minimum wage from 13 years ago, is fair or acceptable, especially given the current rate of inflation,” Edwards said.
Edwards has not previously been able to persuade most Republicans to go along with these plans.
Edwards ended his remarks by calling on his Christian faith, reciting from the book of Matthew, and calling on the Legislature to be peacemakers.
“Our time in office is fleeting, but the decisions we make while here will last generations. I’m asking that we use this time wisely,” Edwards said. “‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.’ In a world that has too much hatred, strife, and currently war, let us be peacemakers.”