Obstacle Course: John Bel Edwards’ Path to a Second Term

Dr. G. Pearson Cross, UL Lafayette political science professor and Assistant Dean of the College of Liberal Arts.
Dr. G. Pearson Cross, UL Lafayette political science professor and Assistant Dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

Pearson Cross, UL Lafayette political scientist, wrote in his recent cover story for The Independent that John Bel Edwards faces long odds in his already declared quest for a second term as governor.

Cross makes a compelling case, noting that Edwards faces a legislature dominated in both houses by Republicans, that his 2015 election itself was possible only due to a perfect matchup against a badly flawed Republican, and that at least two major Republican office holders are circling Edwards’ like they have every intention of running against him in 2019.

If 2015 showed anything it was that prevailing wisdom and standard assumptions fail to hold up in exceptional times. The case can be made that these are exceptional times.

Cross believes that cleaning up the fiscal mess left in Bobby Jindal’s wake could be enough to seal Edwards’ political fate. Jindal left office with the state facing about $3 Billion in deficits; just under $1 Billion for his final year in office and just over $2 Billion for the fiscal year that began on July 1 of this year.

Edwards went where Jindal would not go — raising revenue through a sales tax increase and an increase in tobacco taxes. Cross believes that Republicans will predictably use this to hammer Edwards as we move closer to 2019. But, Edwards, who fought against Jindal’s fiscal recklessness while leading the House Democratic Caucus in both of Jindal’s terms, is not afraid to fight back and turn the question on his opponents as he did in the 2016 regular session: What are you going to cut?

Republican legislators in the House opted to cut TOPS funding for higher education and balked at fully closing the $300 Million or so hole in the budget that remained at the end of the 2016 session. Now, with oil and gas prices still low, with mineral revenue slowed dramatically but at least stabilized, it’s becoming clear that the “let’s wait and see” approach has not improved the state’s fiscal picture. Edwards said recently that he does not intend to call a special session to deal with the shortfall – for now. The pain will start being felt right after the first of the year when TOPS availability will be sharply curtailed and middle class families will begin feeling the impact of cuts that Republicans have typically save for the poor and working poor.

Candidate John Bel Edwards in Lafayette for the opening of his Acadiana headquarters on October 29, 2015, during the runoff with David Vitter.
Candidate John Bel Edwards in Lafayette for the opening of his Acadiana headquarters on October 29, 2015, during the runoff with David Vitter.

As Edwards demonstrated in his campaign, he is excellent at developing a strategy, implementing it, and improvising it when appropriate. His move to use the Department of Natural Resources as the vehicle for his administration to inject itself into the Coastal Zone Management lawsuits against oil and gas companies is an example of that since he’s become governor.

Ultimately, the center of gravity in state politics in Louisiana is the Governor’s Office. Edwards is not an outsider, having spent eight years in the House, where he learned the powers of the governor through his fights against Jindal. Louisiana is a strong governor state, particularly when the governor knows how to wield that power.

Although Edwards lost control of the Louisiana House of Representatives on inauguration day, it is not clear that the Republican caucus that thwarted his attempt to selected a speaker can maintain a partisan, unified front against Edwards, who remains very popular.

The reason for that uncertainty is that control of the House does not reside in the Capitol itself. Instead, that power resides in the hands of a small band of special interest groups that includes the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA), the Louisiana Family Forum, and a hodgepodge of well-funded charter school groups who covet state and local tax dollars.

As the slashing of TOPS looms, House Republicans will soon have to choose between party loyalty (and ideological purity) versus the interests of their constituents. It is ironic that the biggest threat to Republican fiscal solidarity would come through higher education. It was Jindal, after all, who slashed state funding for higher education which produced skyrocketing tuition rates for families which the availability of TOPS masked somewhat. Republican legislators generally shrugged their shoulders and pointed to Jindal.

A current year revenue shortfall of $300 Million or so would wreak havoc in higher education, which has already been the victim of eight years of cuts from Jindal. Healthcare cuts would also likely be on the table because the cuts would come so late in the fiscal year that having to cut $300 Million from a six-month budget (Louisiana fiscal years start on July 1 and end on June 30) is the equivalent of a $600 Million cut.

We won’t have an idea of how severe the fiscal crunch actually is until the Revenue Estimating Committee issues a new revenue forecast.

Edwards appears content to let the legislators’ cuts start hitting — and the calls from constituents start — before moving to ease the pain. He apparently believes those constituents can move those lawmakers toward revenue, where Edwards has long said is where the solution to the state’s problems can be found.

Some were disappointed that Edwards did not put any of the state’s nearly $9 Billion in tax exemptions on the table during any of the three sessions. For most of the prior fiscal year, the state paid out more in tax exemptions than it brought in on revenue from those taxes. Edwards never said why he did not put those exemptions on the table earlier. The time may be coming. And it may be lawmakers who make the move. Tax exemptions can be suspended by majority votes in each chamber. The governor has no direct role in the process as suspensions are handled through resolutions which take effect without the signature of the governor.


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