BATON ROUGE – Gov. John Bel Edwards urged compromise among lawmakers when he addressed the House and Senate the opening day of the regular session, one week after a special session for the budget ended in stalemate.
“I know you haven’t been away for very long, but I hope that in the past week you have had time to rest and refocus on the work that we have ahead of us,” he said March 12. “I do not want the roadblocks of the special session to hamper us from what’s most important – making life better for the people of this great state.”
The address drew a lukewarm response from two local lawmakers, who said Gov. Edwards skirted the issue of the budget in items such as a minimum wage hike and a bill to mandate equal employment pay for men and women.
State Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, questioned the governor’s proposal for a $1.00 hike over the course of two years on the current hourly minimum wage of $7.25.
“Before we start talking about raising minimum wage, we need to start dealing with ideas on how to find revenue to fix the state budget,” he said.
Lawmakers on March 5 ended the special session two days early with no compromise in sight on how they will close the gap in a project $994 million shortfall when a temporary one-cent sales tax expires at 11:59 p.m. June 30.
Gonzales GOP Rep. Clay Schexnayder, who serves on the House Ways & Means Committee, believes Gov. Edwards delved more on Democratic Party rhetoric than the issues that affect Louisiana.
“I think what he was messaging more of a national policy issue, and I think it would’ve been better if he would have addressed the budget issue,” he said. “I know it feels good to some people to hear him touch on those issues that press the buttons nationally, but that’s just my opinion.”
Gov. Edwards also touted his sexual harassment task force, laws to protect the elderly from abuse and harassment, stiffer penalties for abuse in child care and nursing home facilities, and reform to the stringent occupational licensing for small businesses.
House Democrats viewed the governor’s message a push to move forward after they hammer out a budget compromise.
“In this legislature, we need to get our jobs done because if you want to come into this place, you need to be a problem solver and not a problem creator,” said Sam Jones, D-Jonesboro. “I believe Gov. Edwards was hoping to start the part of his administration where we start growing again, but in this legislature we just need to get our jobs done.”
Baton Rouge Democratic Rep. Regina Barrow also touted the optimism, but she said the budget will be the “glaring elephant in the room.”
“We can’t cut our way out of this deficit,” she said. “We need to come together and figure out how we’re going to fix this for the betterment of our state.”
Gov. Edwards touted the need to fully fund TOPS. He alluded to a Dutchtown High School student who will attend University of Alabama because of the uncertainty on TOPS funding.
“Losing to Alabama in the classroom should feel just as painful as losing to them on the football field,” Gov. Edwards said.
A greater emphasis on education and a skilled workforce amounted to one significant area of agreement from both sides of the floor.
“I am totally confident we will fund TOPS,” Mack said. “We need it for a well-educated workforce, and it’s our absolute intention to end this session with it fully funded.”