(Photography by Collin Richie: Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards speaking at Southern University’s graduation)
Democratic Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards defied political wisdom last fall, when he trounced Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the gubernatorial runoff. During a short, six-week transition, he demonstrated that he intends to live up to his campaign promise to govern from the center by tapping Republican Jay Dardenne to be his commissioner of administration and creating transition teams that comprised representatives from across the political spectrum. Now that Edwards is at the helm of the state, he is preparing for a February special session to deal with the state’s structural budget deficit. Business Report caught up briefly with Edwards to discuss how his priorities dovetail and differ from those of the business community.
In the days and weeks after the election, you told the business community you need their help and want their input. What does that mean, specifically?
All stakeholders will have a place at the table as we move forward with policy decisions, and I’ll meet with representatives from the Council for a Better Louisiana and all stakeholders regularly.
Expanding Medicaid, increasing funding for higher education and addressing infrastructure will require new sources of revenue. Where, specifically, do you envision this revenue coming from?
We’ll end a portion of the $7 billion in annual tax giveaways that isn’t getting a good return on investment. Moreover, the Legislative Fiscal Office has calculated that Medicaid expansion would save $52 million in the first year alone. It will return $16 billion of our taxes to Louisiana over the next 10 years at the same time that DSH reductions leave our hospitals unable to continue operating.
You said during a speech late last year to CABL that you will govern from the center. Yet, you told the teachers unions in your first speech after the election that they will have a friend in the Governor’s Mansion. How can you be a friend to unions and business at the same time?
I said I would be a friend to teachers. I have already been a friend to public education, and that work has been recognized though awards from the superintendents association, the principals association and others. My allegiance to public education and to improving it hasn’t polarized me from management or workers. That’s a creation of detractors, not a reality. I am a small business owner. The needs of businesses directly connect with what is best for taxpayers and consumer. I see them as related, and that will show in the policies I support and design.
You have said you will govern from the center. Obviously, you believe this is still possible. But there are not many elected officials able to pull it off today. Why have we become so polarized? How will you be able to bring factions together?
The same way I build coalitions in the Legislature—by focusing on what we can agree on and working from there. I don’t think we’ve become as polarized as it seems from the outside. I think we’ve had leadership that was focused on division as a strategy to get what it wanted. In 2013, I led a bipartisan coalition to pass the only balanced budget during the Jindal years. I’ll employ the same tactics, leading from the front and by uniting, not dividing, to accomplish similar goals as governor.
What do you consider the greatest challenge facing this state?
Our budget challenges are holding us back from accomplishing the rest of our goals. So we have to focus on solving those budget problems to enable us to move forward with reinvesting in what matters. The challenge for our administration will be ensuring that we move forward with all deliberate speed to solve these problems. The longer we wait, the worse the issues get.
Business groups have identified infrastructure as one of the key issues about which they are concerned. Where, specifically, do you see funding coming from for road, bridge and highway projects?
I would commit another 25% of the capital outlay budget for construction for roads, bridges and ports, increasing the state commitment to these projects by $75 million more per year. While also drawing down federal funds, this will greatly expand our ability to address the backlog of infrastructure projects plaguing our state and preventing the movement of goods and people.
Workforce development is a major issue for the business community also. What are your plans to address the state’s workforce training needs?
I will keep our focus on funding the FastStart program to cultivate access to career and technical college curricula that fit the needs of new and growing industries so that Louisianans have the skills they need to fill Louisiana-based jobs. I will reinvest in the WISE Fund and research-based innovations that bring the best and brightest to Louisiana colleges and universities, ensuring that our higher education institutions shine as centers of excellence. I will build the next generation of college-ready students by investing at all levels of education and working collaboratively with all stakeholders to ensure new Louisiana K-12 standards meet the rigor required of students to succeed in the workplace. I will work to increase dual enrollment opportunities so that high school students can get a head start on their college work to make college more affordable and a college degree more attainable.
You said your concern for higher education is the main reason you chose to run for governor. What is your vision for what higher ed could be in this state?
This school year students will pay 90% more in tuition than they did in 2008. At this time, allowing universities to raise tuition and fees, unfettered by approval from the Legislature would deter the Legislature from addressing its culpability in allowing higher ed to be cut more than any other state in the nation, and it would price the American dream further out of reach for our students here at home. I believe that we have work to do on state support for higher ed and reprioritizing state investment before we allow universities to raise tuition and fees more.