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Edwards hits high notes one more time in hometown farewell speech

Gov. John Bel Edwards listens to his wife, First Lady Donna Edwards, deliver her farewell speech on Jan. 3, 2024, at the Florida Parishes Arena and Event Center in Amite City.
Greg LaRose
Louisiana Illuminator
Gov. John Bel Edwards listens to his wife, First Lady Donna Edwards, deliver her farewell speech on Jan. 3, 2024, at the Florida Parishes Arena and Event Center in Amite City.

This story was originally published by the Louisiana Illuminator.

AMITE CITY — Gov. John Bel Edwards revisited the greatest hits from his eight-year tenure as Louisiana’s leader in a farewell speech Wednesday night in his Tangipahoa Parish home.

His speech to a few hundred supporters at the Florida Parishes Arena and Event Center recounted victories he has touted on the way out of office. They ranged from his administration’s fiscal rescue of state government to navigating multiple natural disasters, a pandemic and increasingly divisive politics.

Edwards, a Democrat who Republican Gov.-elect Jeff Landry will replace Monday, made no mention of his successor in his address but did reference his predecessor when recounting his accomplishments.

“Our state is much better off today than it was eight years ago in numerous critically important and objectively verifiable ways,” Edwards said. “In fact, not just better — because that was a pretty low bar to start — but in many respects the best and strongest Louisiana has ever been.”

Former Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, left the state with a $2 billion deficit upon leaving office, largely the result of making tax cuts and using what Edwards called “smoke-and-mirrors budgeting” to operate state government. Ongoing expenses were covered with money only available to the state during a single fiscal year, leading to what Edwards called “fund sweeps” to balance the budget.

Edwards exits the Governor’s Mansion with the state holding reserves in excess of $3 billion. Revenue forecasts predict surpluses this fiscal year and next, although Landry and state lawmakers face the expiration of a 0.45% portion of the state sales tax on June 30, 2025. The approval of that additional tax in 2019, the result of a compromise between Edwards and the Republican-majority legislature, resuscitated Louisiana’s revenue stream at a time when universities and public health care faced dramatic cutbacks without it.

Medicaid, employment milestones

Edwards also reflected on one his first actions in office: expanding access to Medicaid, which he called “the easiest big decision I made as governor.”

According to his administration, more than 500,000 additional people have access to government-backed health care insurance. Rural hospitals in Louisiana have been able to stay open as a result, with Edwards noting facility closures in neighboring states that didn’t accept additional Medicaid assistance provided in the federal Affordable Care Act.

Landry has said he intends to retain the Medicaid expansion and is considering copayments and work requirements for enrollees.

Two more figures Edwards highlighted in speech dealt with unemployment.

Louisiana’s unemployment rate for November, the latest figures available, showed a 3.5% jobless rate, the state’s lowest ever figure for the month and below the national 3.7% rate.

Also, Edwards said the state’s unemployment trust fund stands at $924 million and is on track to reach $1.1 billion by August, all without placing an additional solvency tax on employers.

That should place the fund’s balance back at 2019 levels, before COVID-19 created historic demand for jobless benefits. Loans from the federal government helped replenish the fund, and the governor and lawmakers agreed to put nearly $1 billion in the account over 2021 and 2022 to recover from the pandemic run on its resources.

ITEP, criminal justice changes

Edwards also promoted his executive order that provided local say-so over the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP), which gives businesses investing in Louisiana a sizable break on local property taxes. Prior to his edict, local governments and taxing authorities had no voice in awarding the costly perk that deprived them of revenue for public safety, infrastructure and public schools.

The executive order Edwards signed in 2016 reduced the ITEP break from a 100% exemption to 80% over five years, with an optional five-year extension if the company meets job creation goals. Despite critics’ concerns that the policy would discourage investment, the governor said projects that received ITEP incentives went from a $10 billion average before his order to $25 billion since then.

“Fears that these ITEP reforms would reduce capital investment in the state were not only unfounded, they were exactly wrong,” Edwards said.

Gov.-elect Landry has indicated he is unlikely to divert from the 80% exemption rate but hasn’t said whether he will preserve local approval power. The state Board of Commerce and Industry, a panel of governor’s appointees and major business representatives, has state-level approval authority for ITEP applications.

Efforts to decrease Louisiana’s prison population also worked their way into Edwards’ address. He credited his criminal justice package, which the legislature approved in 2017 with bipartisan support, for helping lower the state’s nation-leading incarceration rate.

According to the governor, 760 of every 100,000 Louisiana residents were imprisoned in 2015 before he took office. As of 2021, the most recent year for which he said statistics are available, the rate was 564 per 100,000. Only Mississippi had a higher rate at 575, according to the Sentencing Project.

Critics of Edwards’ criminal justice strategy say it’s partially to blame for capacity issues at Louisiana’s juvenile facilities, which led the governor to temporarily relocate some of the most problematic teens and young adults to the former death row facility at the state penitentiary in Angola.

Landry has said he will convene the legislature for a special session in February to handle public safety matters. Proposals are likely to roll back components of Edwards’ criminal justice reform and reinvestment initiative.

A first family addition

First Lady Donna Edwards started the evening with her own address, noting she and the governor were anticipating the birth of their first grandchild. Their daughter, Samantha Bel, and her husband Jonathan Ricau, had just checked into a New Orleans hospital as the first lady took the stage for her speech, she said.

Donna Edwards recapped her own agenda accomplishments ahead of her husband’s. They include Teach MAM, an education initiative with emphasis on music, arts and movement.

Through the Louisiana Fosters program, she spurred churches around the state to boost interest among their members in becoming foster parents. The first lady said the campaign has resulted in more than 6,000 foster placements in the past eight years.

The governor’s wife also organized her peers in other states to form a coalition to prevent and raise awareness of sex trafficking. The Edwardses also convinced lawmakers to create the Governor’s Office of Human Trafficking Prevention.

The office’s first director, Dana Hunter, is expected to continue those efforts, with Donna Edwards announcing she would lead the Louisiana First Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the first lady’s community missions.

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