Edwards sets January 19 for budget deal

BATON ROUGE, LA - Nearly half-way through his first term in office, Gov. John Bel Edwards defends his accomplishments, but admits Louisiana faces hurdles in the next calendar year.

Edwards, speaking Wednesday at his executive mansion, emphasized the state’s billion-dollar budget gap, as temporary sales taxes expire July 1. The Democratic governor set a Jan. 19 deadline for legislators -- namely state House conservatives -- to outline how the state should offset the lost revenue.

"If we don’t have an agreement by that date, I don’t expect that I’ll be calling a special session in February,” he said.

Tax policy cannot be considered in the three-month regular legislative session, from March to June. The governor said calling one would be a waste of time and state funds, if the Republican-led state House seem unwilling to compromise.

"When you need 70 votes to do things, and if you don’t have legislative leadership on board, it’s very difficult anything done,” he said.

Without a special session to extend or raise revenue, the governor said he will be forced to cut hospital and higher education spending.

"You are going to see a balanced budget proposal that represents what it would look like if we take a billion dollars out,” he said. “And it is so nasty.”

Edwards said House leaders remain opposed to most of his tax proposals. His plan would include repealing income tax breaks for wealthier people and changing income tax brackets. It would also sunset sales tax exemptions and apply that tax to additional products, such as cable and streaming services. A legislative task force recommended similar changes last year.

"I don’t know how to be more fair than to give the legislature its own plan,” he said.

But enthusiasm in those ideas remains scant among state House leaders. Speaker Taylor Barras has suggested extending a slice of the higher sales tax rate past July 1, an idea the Edwards said he would only support as a “bridge” to another source of revenue.

Despite the fiscal discord, the governor voiced optimism about Louisiana’s future.

"I can unequivocally state that we have made tremendous progress over the course of the year in stabilizing state government and making sure that we are more adequately and responsibly funding critical priorities,” he said.

Edwards noted what he considers the state’s current strengths. Roughly 456,000 adults have obtained healthcare coverage since the governor expanded Medicaid last year. For the first time since 2009, the state is on par to avoid a mid-year budget deficit. Louisiana’s unemployment rate is at its lowest since May 2008.

"I've often said and always believed that the very best social program is a job, and the only thing that beats a job is a career,” he said. “We’re working on both fronts.”

The governor also addressed investigations into former members of his inner circle. Former deputy chief of staff Johnny Anderson resigned last month, after a state employee filed a sexual harassment complaint. Others lodged similar claims against him in 2006, when he worked for then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco and led the Southern University Board of Supervisors. Edwards said he was aware of the allegations, but hired Anderson because a university investigation did not prove the allegations.

"They were allegations, and they had been investigated by Southern without any finding that he had committed any of those allegations,” he said. “And he denied them.”

Regarding the recent claim, Anderson also maintains his innocence. The governor said he is taking the allegation “very seriously" and has launched a task force to examine sexual harassment policies within state offices. The state auditor and legislators are working on similar reviews.

"I would say we have a problem in government just like anywhere else,” Edwards said. “There simply is no place for sexual harassment in the workplace in Louisiana, whether it’s in the public sector or private sector.”

The governor also noted a legislative audit into former State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson’s alleged use of tax dollars for personal luxury. Auditors suggest Edmonson had family stay in hotel rooms booked for troopers protecting Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, while using troopers to run errands for him and his family.

Edwards calls the findings “very troubling,” but defended Edmonson’s use of a state-owned home without paying rent.

"I'm less than convinced that the legislative auditor got it right relative to the use of the residence,” he said. “I told him to stay in the residence because that’s the best place for him to be if he’s going to command the State Police.”

Edwards, who plans to seek re-election in 2019, remains popular in the state. A poll this week from Southern Media & Opinion Research shows the governor’s job approval rating at 65 percent.

"Sixty-five is great, but we’ve we’ve got to keep working every single day,” the governor said on his monthly radio show Wednesday afternoon. “It reaffirms that the people of Louisiana appreciate the moderate, balanced approach that we’ve taken.”

Numerous Republicans are considering challenges to Edwards, though none have formally announced a gubernatorial campaign.

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