Louisiana Spotlight: 2019 session is a mixed bag for governor
BATON ROUGE — This year’s legislative session is nearing its end with mixed results for Gov. John Bel Edwards, offering another year of defeats for minimum wage and equal pay issues that were central to his campaign promises, but containing few of the budget battles of prior years.
The Democratic governor’s agenda started off light and will end that way, but while he may not have a long list of bills to tout, he’s successfully beaten back some proposals he didn’t want to pass. And he appears on track to get a budget that includes most of the spending boosts for teacher pay, public colleges, and health services that he’s seeking.
Still, four years of efforts to enact the minimum wage hike and equal pay protections he campaigned about in 2015 have failed to win the support of lawmakers. Edwards will run again this fall with renewed pledges to continue pursuing the measures, though he’s found no way to make them law.
Asked about the latest shelving of a minimum wage increase, Edwards said on his monthly radio show: “I’m never going to give up,” calling the $7.25-per-hour federal rate “not an adequate minimum wage.”
On the success front, the governor so far has stalled industry-backed bids to roll back some changes he made to a lucrative property tax break for manufacturers, the Industrial Tax Exemption Program.
Edwards has tied the property tax breaks to job creation and given local government a say in whether exemptions that would take away dollars for their operations are issued.
Some Republican lawmakers, backed by business groups, proposed to lessen the local government decision-making authority. But they’ve been unable so far to get any proposal out of the House and Senate, amid pushback not only from Edwards, but also from municipal officials.
Budget negotiations have been less contentious this year, as Louisiana sees increased tax dollars available for spending. Lawmakers and the governor are bickering over ways to spend new cash, rather than how to make deep cuts.
House Republicans, however, are forcing Edwards and his allies to relitigate the hard-fought, seven-year tax compromise reached last year that ended nearly a decade of budget uncertainty.
Bills aimed at undoing key pieces of the tax deal — such as rolling back the sales tax that was central to the compromise and reversing cuts to tax break programs — have won House passage, against Edwards’ wishes.
It’s questionable the bills can gain enough support from senators to reach the governor’s desk, and Edwards seems poised to veto any big-ticket measures if they do. But Republicans are using such legislation to slam the governor’s record on taxes in an election year where he faces two GOP challengers on the Oct 12 ballot.
The main effort to upend last year’s tax deal comes from House Republican leader Lance Harris, who wants to roll back the centerpiece 0.45% state sales tax earlier than its planned mid-2025 expiration date. Republican supporters argue two years of back-to-back surpluses suggest Edwards and the majority-GOP Legislature went too far in passing taxes and fees.
“If government has a surplus, that means it took too much,” said Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Shreveport Republican.
The Edwards administration says the tax deal struck after 10 legislative sessions since 2016 shouldn’t be upended.
“It put us on a sound fiscal footing for the first time in a long time,” said Edwards’ chief lawyer Matthew Block.
While the tax debate continues at home, Edwards is gaining attention nationally for new anti-abortion measures that appear certain to reach his desk, including a proposal to ban abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy.
Several conservative states have passed similar bans, and Louisiana’s would only take effect if Mississippi’s proposal is upheld in a federal appeals court. Edwards, who ran as an anti-abortion candidate and voted that way as a lawmaker, has said he’ll sign the abortion ban.
The governor’s decision is bringing mixed reactions. His intention to sign the ban will shore up his position with some voters in his conservative home state during an election year, but is putting him crosswise with national Democratic Party leaders and donors.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte