(The Center Square) – When Gov. John Bel Edwards gave his last session-opening State of the State address on March 9, 2020, the speech was changed at the last minute to announce the first confirmed COVID-19 case in Louisiana.
Over the past 13 months, the state has had almost a half-million confirmed cases of the illness and more than 10,000 residents who contracted the disease have died. Monday’s speech was held outdoors at Southern University’s A.W. Mumford Stadium rather than inside the state Capitol to adhere to U.S. Centers for Disease Control COVID-19 guidelines.
“Today, these bleachers are bare,” Edwards said in his prepared remarks. “But one day soon, if more people continue to get vaccinated and we hold down the transmission of the virus, we are going to fill this stadium once again.”
Edwards acknowledged early in his remarks the toll of COVID-19, which was the state’s third-leading cause of death in 2020 behind heart disease and cancer. Rep. Reggie Bagala, April Dunn, a member of the governor’s staff, and Sen. Regina Barrow’s husband of 36 years were among those who died, he noted.
Barrow thanked her colleagues Monday for their support and urged them not to take policy agreements personally during the session. Edwards, a Democrat dealing with a Republican-majority Louisiana Legislature, sounded a similar note of cooperation.
“So this legislative session, let us challenge ourselves to envision new ways of making Louisiana better for all of our citizens,” Edwards said.
Edwards reiterated his calls for higher pay for teachers, school support personnel and higher education faculty, and for more spending on state-supported scholarships. He touted bills calling for reporting requirements for sexual assault and harassment in higher education, creating an office focused on preventing human trafficking, and establishing a “Foster Youth Bill of Rights.”
Edwards also addressed what may be the two biggest themes of the session: taxes and spending federal stimulus money. He said his first priority for the $3 billion-plus Louisiana is expected to receive through the American Rescue Plan will be replenishing the employer-funded unemployment trust fund, followed by infrastructure projects such as high-speed broadband and paying down debt.
Edwards again stated that overhauling the state’s tax system, which is a priority for legislative leaders, should raise the same amount of money as the current structure.
“This is a fiscal session, and with that comes a tendency to throw a ton of bills at the wall and see what sticks,” he said. “But true tax reform doesn’t just mean tax change.”
Edwards noted that in four years – two fiscal sessions away – 45 cents of the state sales tax will expire.
“No one wants to go back to the fiscal mess that I inherited,” Edwards said. “And I won’t let that happen.”
Edwards restated calls for a higher minimum wage, which he has tried and failed to raise every year he’s been in office. He is not backing a specific bill, but said he will sign any bill raising the wage floor the Legislature is able to pass.
“We call essential workers heroes for continuing to work throughout this pandemic, yet, even when they work full time, we don’t pay them enough to cover their essential needs,” Edwards said.
Business advocates and Republicans have argued the market, not state government, should control wages, and that raising the minimum wage will lead to fewer jobs for low-skilled workers. Attempts to raise the minimum wage in Louisiana, and any other government mandates on businesses, will get serious pushback.
“Legislation already has been filed that would more than double the state minimum to $15 an hour and open the door to suing employers over what they ask job candidates,” National Federation of Independent Business State Director Dawn Starns McVea said. “These type of anti-business policies will only further burden those already struggling to find workers and keep their doors open.”
In a session-opening statement, Republican Senate President Page Cortez said bringing “stability, simplicity and predictability” to the state’s tax system could “create generational change for the future of Louisiana.”
“Old policies keep us as a major outlier to businesses because of our complex and costly tax structure,” Cortez said.
The session officially began at noon Monday and must end by 6 p.m. June 10.