BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Only months from an election seen as a referendum on his performance, Gov. John Bel Edwards told lawmakers Monday that Louisiana was "back on the path to prosperity" after stabilizing its finances, framing his term as ending budget uncertainty even as he and House Republican leaders squabble over next year's spending plan.
"The budget crisis that for years held Louisiana hostage is over," the Democratic governor said to a joint gathering of the majority-GOP House and Senate on the opening day of the annual legislative session.
The 60-day regular session is the 11th session of the four-year term, a span consumed with heated budget-balancing tax debates and conflicts between the governor and House Republican leaders.
A seven-year tax deal struck last year ended fears of deep cuts across health and education programs that marked budget debates for the past decade. Still, financial disagreements remain front and center this session with Edwards and House GOP leaders at loggerheads about how much the state should spend in the budget year starting July 1 and what income projections to use.
This latest feud comes as Edwards is seeking a second term in the Oct. 12 election, facing two Republican challengers: U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone, both of whom attended the speech in the House chamber. Abraham objected to Edwards' characterization of a state with economic momentum.
"The state is not prosperous right now," said the congressman, who represents a northeast Louisiana-based district.
In campaign-style remarks, Edwards touted past achievements and outlined a limited election-year agenda.
He's seeking pay raises for teachers and school support workers, creation of a program that promotes veteran-owned businesses and passage of a state law to prohibit health insurance discrimination based on preexisting medical conditions.
Edwards again is proposing to raise Louisiana's minimum wage and enact new equal pay laws, efforts that have failed three years in a row. He asked lawmakers to send a minimum wage hike to voters to decide.
"While we refuse to act, our neighbors in Arkansas have raised their minimum wage three times, most recently with an $11-an-hour ballot initiative," the governor said.
Lawmakers will debate tax measures, though little appetite seems to exist for significant change after last year's deal. Some Republicans want to reverse Edwards' restrictions on a property tax break program for manufacturers. Repeat efforts to raise Louisiana's gas tax to address a $14 billion roadwork backlog face the same opposition that previously killed the proposal.
Contentious debates are expected on Louisiana's use of the death penalty, the legalization of sports betting, the loosening of marijuana penalties, the handling of sexual harassment settlements involving state officials and a proposal to ban abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected.
Other repeat debates are planned on whether to enact statewide regulations for ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft and whether to strike a new long-term deal with Harrah's, the operator of New Orleans' land-based casino.
Edwards struck a bipartisan tone in his speech: "No matter where I go across this state, I am more and more convinced that there is far more that unites us than divides us."
But even as Edwards was delivering his remarks, his campaign issued a statement slamming Abraham for showing up to the speech, calling it a "desperate, pathetic stunt." And Republican Rep. Blake Miguez, of Erath, tweeted an objection to Edwards' speech while the governor was giving it, saying Edwards' descriptions of economic prosperity were untrue.
As a backdrop to the session, all 144 legislative seats also are on the October ballot. Many of the 47 term-limited lawmakers are angling for new elected jobs, while other lawmakers are running for reelection.
Rep. Tanner Magee, a Houma Republican, predicts the looming election will lead to more grandstanding than anything else.
"It's going to be about positioning yourself to be in the election cycle, and I think it's going to be a lot of just political stuff instead of substance," Magee said.
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