Edwards' Agenda: Pay Hikes, Minimum Wage, No Special Session
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards previewed a 2019 Louisiana legislative agenda Monday that features a few new items, several repeat proposals and a pledge that he won't call any special sessions during this election year.
Pay raises at public schools, a minimum wage increase, equal pay laws and health care protections are on the Democratic governor's to-do list as he seeks re-election to a second term this fall. Attempts to roll back last year's seven-year sales tax renewal won't have Edwards' backing.
And after calling seven special sessions over his first three years in office, Edwards expects to return to the regular legislative calendar this year. Louisiana's budget has stabilized, he said, and special sessions to address financial gaps aren't needed.
"In 2019, it is my intention not to have a single special session of the Legislature. That should be doable," the governor told the Press Club of Baton Rouge, to applause.
Top priority for Edwards when lawmakers return for their two-month regular session in April will be pay raises for public school teachers and support workers, along with block grant increases to school districts.
The proposal, which he described as the first year of a three-year plan to raise salaries to the Southern average, includes a $1,000 pay raise for teachers and certificated personnel such as school counselors and a $500 increase for support staff such as cafeteria workers. The proposed raises — along with additional block grant increases to districts — are expected to cost about $135 million in the 2019-20 budget year.
"Pay increases will help recruit talented teachers and make Louisiana more competitive relative to other (Southern) states and improve educational outcomes in Louisiana, because the number one ingredient to quality education is to have a highly professional, motivated teacher in every single classroom," he said.
A teacher pay raise appears to have widespread support among lawmakers, though with disagreements about who should be included. House Republican leaders, however, have stalled the income forecast changes that Edwards hoped would pay for the raises, saying the state's economy remains fragile and it's too soon to boost the forecast. Another forecasting meeting is expected Jan. 17 to revisit the debate.
Edwards also said he'll try again to raise Louisiana's minimum wage and enact equal pay requirements on private industry, despite three years of rejection from the majority-Republican House and Senate. Business lobbying groups strongly oppose the proposals.
The makeup of the House committee that reviews such legislation hasn't changed, making passage of the employment law changes unlikely.
"Their unreasonableness on this will not deter me," Edwards said.
Also on the agenda, Edwards said he will ask lawmakers to prohibit health insurers from refusing coverage to people because of their medical conditions. That's aimed at duplicating a provision of the federal health care overhaul that is threatened by litigation.
Though the governor didn't include legalization of sports betting on his list Monday, Edwards said he would support that.
Seven states currently offer sports gambling, and more are expected to consider measures to permit it this year. Louisiana lawmakers spurned similar legislation in 2018, but supporters of the gambling expansion hope a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing sports betting could change minds.
Edwards didn't spell out what he'd support, but said he thinks the activity would help Louisiana's casinos remain competitive with casinos in neighboring Mississippi, where sports wagering is legal.
By AP reporter Melinda Deslatte