BATON ROUGE, La. — A public health emergency declaration in effect since March of 2020 will end Wednesday in Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards told state lawmakers in a wide-ranging speech on the first day of the 2022 regular legislative session.
Opening day fell two years to the day after Louisiana recorded its first COVID-19 death. The Democratic governor's mitigation efforts at times included mask mandates and strong limits on public gatherings that put him at odds with some Republican lawmakers and state officials. The restrictions and mandates had largely fallen away as the state's coronavirus picture improved. But, in prepared remarks, Edwards was unapologetic.
“If the circumstances call for it, I will not hesitate to declare another emergency. But God willing, we will never have to see such difficult mitigation measures in our state again,” he said. The speech noted that since the first emergency declaration was imposed on March 11, 2020, vaccines have been developed and new treatments have become available.
Edwards outlined spending priorities in his proposed budget, which legislative committees have already begun reviewing in a year that has Louisiana, for the first time in years, seeing significant revenue increases. In addition to higher projected tax revenues, there is an influx of more than $2.8 billion in one-time revenue — $1.4 billion from federal pandemic aid, $700 million of surplus from the 2021 fiscal year and $853 million higher-than-planned revenue for the current year.
Edwards reiterated a call he made in January for $148 million for pay raises for Louisiana teachers and school support staff; $103 million in higher education faculty raises and $25 million more in early childhood education. He also called in the speech for added state supplemental pay for police and firefighters.
Addressing a looming issue that wasn't put to rest during a February special session, Edwards chastised lawmakers for failing to increase minority representation in Congress or the state House and Senate during a recent redistricting session.
With Black people making up close to a third of the state population, Edwards vetoed a new congressional map that maintains the status quo with only one of six districts having a majority-minority population. That set up a possible override effort by lawmakers at the end of March.
Edwards didn't veto legislative maps but was critical that minority districts weren't increased in the state House or Senate, something lawmakers could revisit during the current session.
“Having personally witnessed redistricting twice now, I can say that the current process is not working,” Edwards, a former lawmaker, said in the text. "That is why I am supporting legislation to establish an independent redistricting commission to support the Legislature in reapportionment for future redistricting.
Edwards also repeated his call for a higher state minimum wage and legislation addressing inequities in pay for women, efforts lawmakers have rebuffed in past years.
He also addressed discontent among state residents with insurance companies in dealing with claims following hurricanes Laura, Delta and Ida.
“My legislative package includes a number of bills focused on hurricane deductibles, claim transparency, enforcing insurance fraud laws against bad actors, revamping the adjuster registry so that policyholders can verify their adjusters, and stopping mortgage companies from withholding insurance money from homeowners without good reason,” Edwards said in the prepared remarks.
Edwards opened the speech with a show of support for Ukraine as that country fights a Russian invasion. His guest for the speech was Eddy Hayes, honorary consul for Ukraine in Louisiana.
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