Rough First Year For Edwards: Floods, Shootings, Budget Woes
BATON ROUGE (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards knew he was entering the governor's office in crisis mode, inheriting a massive financial mess when his term began a year ago. If only that was the sole crisis to cross his desk before his first anniversary.
Instead, the Democrat who won office with 56 percent of the vote got more tragedy and upheaval than many governors see in their full tenure.
Two floods hit the state in March and August, killing 13 people in all, wrecking tens of thousands of homes and causing billions of dollars in damage. The shooting of Alton Sterling, a black man, by white police officers in Baton Rouge triggered protests and unease in July, followed fewer than two weeks later by the ambush-style killings of three law enforcement officers in the city.
And those financial problems were more troubling than expected, with Louisiana sliding into a recession and the shortfalls left by former Gov. Bobby Jindal far deeper than estimated. Lawmakers spent a record 19 consecutive weeks in session last year, passing an estimated $1.6 billion in taxes and fees to fill gaps.
As Edwards reaches his one-year anniversary Wednesday, voters think the governor has handled the crises well, giving him strong favorability numbers in recent polls.
He called his first year challenging, but rewarding.
"If you say you would have done nothing differently, that wouldn't register as quite an honest assessment because there are always lessons learned. But I will tell you I'm very proud of the work that we've been able to do under difficult circumstances," he said.
He has a minefield of problems ahead that could test those approval ratings.
More budget cuts loom as Louisiana struggles with one of the nation's highest unemployment rates and oil price declines. Edwards remains at odds with House Republican leaders over plans for tax reform. And a looming decision from the U.S. Justice Department on its civil rights investigation into Sterling's shooting could bring new upheaval in Baton Rouge.
A state House member with little statewide name recognition when he launched his campaign, Edwards shocked the political establishment by defeating Republican then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter to become governor. He was the first Democrat to win statewide office since 2008.
Republicans quickly pushed back, ending a tradition of Louisiana's governor having a heavy hand in selecting the House speaker. The majority GOP chamber chose its own leadership, causing difficulties for Edwards to get his agenda through the chamber.
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, described the House relationship with the governor as "much improved" today, despite philosophical differences.
"I wouldn't say it's a strained relationship. I would say it's an independent relationship," said House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.
Edwards counts among his accomplishments ending Jindal's reliance on patchwork financing to fill budget shortfalls and the expansion of Louisiana's Medicaid program.
The Medicaid expansion has given government-financed health insurance to more than 375,000 people while also saving Louisiana millions by taking advantage of available federal health dollars. The program, however, is threatened by Republicans in Congress working to dismantle the law that created it.
Asked to describe his hardest time in office, Edwards doesn't cite finances.
"The toughest day for me was the Sunday when I woke up and was getting ready for church and found out that we had a gunman in Baton Rouge who was obviously targeting police officers, who shot six law enforcement officers, killing three," he said.
An Army veteran from Missouri shot the officers before he was gunned down, authorities said. The killings came fewer than two weeks after Sterling's death by police set off protests.
Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, said Edwards responded to each crisis with "steady, calm leadership" for a city on edge.
Edwards' in-command appearance after the protests, shootings and mid-August flooding that ravaged south Louisiana helped boost his approval ratings to 63 percent in a November survey, said pollster Bernie Pinsonat.
But the pollster said Edwards has a difficult path ahead, amid continuing financial troubles, voter resistance to taxes and GOP efforts to prove the statewide election of a Democrat was a fluke.
"The challenge is remaining popular while staying true to his Democratic supporters in a primarily red state," Pinsonat said. Republicans are "certainly going to be more contrarian this upcoming session. He thinks they were bad last time, he hasn't seen anything yet."
– by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte