Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards makes his State of the State address to the Louisiana Legislature to kick off the legislative session. (JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator)
Gov. John Bel Edwards’ opened the 2022 regular session of the Louisiana Legislature with his annual State of the State address Monday. In his speech, the Democratic governor outlines his budget priorities to members of the Republican-majority statehouse.
Louisiana finds itself flush with cash, thanks to unanticipated state tax revenue surpluses and a major infusion of federal infrastructure resources.
Here are five key takeaways from the governor’s speech:
- COVID-19 emergency proclamation will end
On the two year anniversary of the first recorded COVID-19 death in Louisiana, Edwards announced he will not renew the state’s COVID-19 health emergency order this week.
The public health emergency provided the foundation for social distancing and mask requirements during the pandemic. During stretches with COVID-19 case surges, the order also set access and capacity limits for businesses and other venues.
Since March 2020, nearly 17,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Louisiana and more than 1.23 million cases have been recorded , according to Louisiana Department of Health data.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has classified most Louisiana parishes as being at moderate to low risk for community spread of the virus. Only Cameron, East Carroll, West Carroll and Winn parishes are at high risk, and 24 parishes are at substantial risk.
Statewide, 2.4% of COVID-19 tests reported to the health department came back positive from Feb. 24 to March 2.
“Parades rolled again this Mardi Gras,” Edwards said. “If that’s not a Louisiana breeze of hope, I don’t know what is.”
If COVID-19 conditions in the state worsen in the future, Edwards said he “will not hesitate” to declare another emergency.
“I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that we are in a much better place today than we were two years ago,” he said.
- A budget shaped around education
The state budget Edwards proposes includes significant investments in higher education, early childhood education as well as a $1,500 pay raise to K-12 teachers. In his speech, Edwards said he recommends a $2,000 raise for school faculty come of the first $50 million of any additional state money the Revenue Estimating Conference finds before lawmakers approve the 2021-22 fiscal year budget. The Legislature must approve a state spending plan before they adjourn in early June.
“Shaping the future always, always starts with education,” he said.
The investments include:
- $31.7 million for faculty pay raises in higher education
- $10.5 million for the M.J. Foster Promise Program Fund, which provides financial aid to students enrolled at two-year colleges
- $97.2 million for higher education, which includes $5 million for Title IX offices across the state, $15 million increase in GO Grants, and $25 million for the Higher Education Initiatives Fund.
- $43.4 million for early childhood education, including more than $17 million for the LA-4 Early Childhood program.
- a $12 per diem increase for intermediate care facilities that are home to people living with intellectual disabilities.
The governor’s proposed budget also includes $100 pay raises for law enforcement and first responders.
“Here in Louisiana, we need to put an end to this talk of defunding the police,” Edwards said.
- Independent redistricting commission
After vetoing a congressional map that doesn’t include an additional majority-minority district, Edwards said he will support legislation to establish an independent redistricting commission for future reapportionment efforts.
“It is disappointing and unfortunate, in my view, that the end result of the special (redistricting) session did not reflect what is right and fair and what is required by the Voting Rights Act,” Edwards said.
In Louisiana, minority populations have grown since the previous Census in 2010. Black residents comprise nearly one-third of the state’s count, but one of its six congressional districts has good odds to elect a minority representative. Lawmakers also left the number of majority-minority seats in the Louisiana House and Senate unchanged, which is expected to trigger a lawsuit from voting rights interest groups this week.
“While numerous maps were filed reflecting this growth, none of these maps made it to my desk,” Edwards said.
- Greater police accountability
Edwards said he will support legislation that would increase police accountability in Louisiana.
“We know that we need to do more to hold the very few officers who violate that trust accountable,” he said.
Edwards is under fire after a Jan. 28 Associated Press article revealed he had been made aware of circumstances surrounding Ronald Greene’s violent death at the hands of state troopers well before official details and body camera video from troopers were made public.
Greene died in May 2019 following a police pursuit after what was initially described to the governor in a text message as a “lengthy, violent struggle” between troopers and an unnamed individual. State police initially claimed Greene succumbed from injuries in a car wreck that ended the chase outside Monroe.
Edwards said he will support legislation that would automatically terminate police officers if they violate constitutional civil rights.
- Another minimum wage hike plea
“Finally, I can’t leave this podium without yet again making a plea for you to do the right thing and raise the minimum wage and reduce the gender pay gap,” Edwards told lawmakers.
The governor has attempted to raise the state’s $7.25 minimum wage – the lowest wage allowed by federal law – every year he’s been in office.
“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,” he said.
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