Gov. John Bel Edwards devoted the first half of Monday’s night “State of the State” address at Southern University’s A.W. Mumford Stadium to remembering the illness, death, destruction and hard times that visited Louisiana in 2020 in the form of the novel coronavirus pandemic and its related economic downturn and back-to-back-to-back “devastating hurricanes (that) made landfall in Louisiana.”
“For every story of loss, however,” Edwards said, “there has also been one of survival. Because Louisiana is a state full of unwavering faith and an enduring spirit.”
The governor dedicated the second half of the speech to the 2021 legislative session that began Monday, telling lawmakers that he wants to see — among other things — bills increasing the minimum wage and increasing pay for teachers and professors, a bill that will require university employees to report what they know about sexual crimes and misconduct and one that will addressing the wage gap that leaves Louisiana women making less than their male counterparts.
Speaking on Southern’s campus to avoid packing lawmakers and the general public into the Louisiana House Chamber — where the speech is typically given to kick off the year’s legislative session — Edwards acknowledged, “This is not is not typically how I deliver my opening speech for session, but then again, this has not been a typical year.” He later added: “I wish I could stand here today and say that COVID is behind us. We’re not quite there yet.”
COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in Louisiana in 2020, behind heart disease and cancer, Edwards said. Louisiana has had almost 450,000 cases of COVID-19 and 10,241 deaths.
The peak of hospitalizations was reached Jan. 7, when 2,069 Louisianians were hospitalized with COVID-19. On Monday, there were 308 COVID-19 patients in Louisiana’s hospitals.
“But 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. Two numbers in the daily death count, added just a few hours apart, don’t do justice to the 60 years of marriage those two people shared together. The numbers don’t adequately convey how long the ICU shifts have been. Or equally long hours of figuring out how to pay the bills after being laid off.”
In the middle of the pandemic, came an Atlantic Hurricane Season that was the worst in recorded history, with 30 named storms, breaking the record of the 28 named storms from 2005. Fived named storms hit Louisiana, and three of them were hurricanes. Hurricanes Laura and Delta, landed in the same area of Southwest Louisiana and left thousands homeless and without power. Hurricane Laura, A Category 4 was the strongest recorded hurricane to make landfall in Louisiana since 1856. Hurricane Delta landed as a Category 2. Hurricane Zeta, which was one mile-per-hour shy of a Category 3 storm, made landfall in Cocodrie in Southeast Louisiana, and its eye passed directly over New Orleans.
Edwards said the state has been working with local leaders, the congressional delegation and the Biden administration “to address the many needs that remain in Southwest Louisiana.”
“We are still working to pick up the pieces and make communities whole again,” Edwards said. “We will not stop Southwest Louisiana stronger than ever.”
As for COVID-19, the governor said it gives him hope that more 1.3 million Louisianians — or 28 percent — have gotten their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 966,365 Louisianans have completed their vaccine series.
Everyone 16 years and older in the state is eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and Edwards said, “We need as many people as possible to be in that number as soon as possible to put this pandemic behind us.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards challenged lawmakers “to envision new ways of making Louisiana better for all of our citizens.”Louisiana after the pandemic shouldn’t look like it looked before the pandemic, he said, “because we can do better.”
“The pandemic has highlighted inequities that persist in our communities — especially when it comes to health outcomes,” Edwards said. “These inequities were not created overnight, nor will they be eliminated overnight.”
Edwards may have been his most forceful when he spoke about increasing the minimum wage. Louisiana doesn’t have its own minimum wage, so minimum-wage workers in the state get whatever the federal minimum is. Since 2009, that’s been $7.25/hr. Edwards said he wouldn’t pick a particular minimum-wage-increase bill to support. “My message to the legislature is simple: pass a bill, get it on my desk, I’ll sign it,” he said to applause.
If Edwards were to pick a bill to support, it could be interpreted as him endorsing a candidate for Congress. Sen. Karen Carter Peterson and Sen. Troy Carter, two New Orleans Democrats who are in the April 24 runoff for the open 2nd Congressional District seat, have filed separate bills raising the minimum wage. Carter’s would raise the minimum wage to $15 beginning in January 2022. Peterson’s bill proposes stepping up that level by 2026, starting with $11/hour in 2022 and $13/hour.
Edwards has not made an endorsement in that race.