‘We are moving forward,’ Edwards tells legislators
BATON ROUGE – Opening remarks from Gov. John Bel Edwards in a setting unlike any other before this year kicked off a legislative session that predicated a year like none other.
He spoke Monday evening to an audience of lawmakers in an otherwise empty A.W. Mumford Stadium on the campus of Southern University to open the 2021 session, one year after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted much of last year’s session.
“Today, these bleachers are bare. But one day soon – if more people continue to get vaccinated and we hold down the transmission of the virus – we are going to fill this stadium once again,” he said. “And I can’t wait to be here with you watching the Human Jukebox and the Jaguars take the field.”
The pandemic, which has dominated much of time the last year, figured prominently into the address.
I know this hasn’t been an easy year for you, your families or your businesses. COVID has taken far too many of our friends and colleagues.
Earlier in the pandemic, you even lost one of your own – Rep. Reggie Bagala. As you know, I lost a member of my own staff, April Dunn, around the same time. And then in December, Sen. Regina Barrow lost her husband of 36 years, James, to COVID.
He also praised the frontline personnel who worked many hours during the pandemic, as well as the officials and first responders who worked around the clock during Hurricanes Laura and Delta.
COVID accounted for the loss of 10,241 lives since the start of the pandemic.
“Nothing can measure the pain of a family celebrating their first holiday with an empty seat at the dinner table,” Edwards said. “Two numbers in the daily death count, added just a few hours apart, don’t do justice to the 60 years of marriage those two people shared together.”
The ongoing vaccinations will make the difference for the state, Edwards said.
Twenty-eight percent of the state’s population – more than 1.3 residents – have begun their vaccine series.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, but we are moving forward,” he said. “And that is what I want to talk to you about now. What’s next.”
Edwards continued promotion of the Health Equity Task Force he established at the onset of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, he reaffirmed his commitment to affordable healthcare, an initiative he began the week he took office in 2016 through an executive order to expand Medicaid.
“I know that we still have a lot of work to do in order to improve health outcomes, but I can’t imagine how many more people would have died this past year if not for Medicaid expansion,” he said.
Edwards also touted education reform, which led to his recommendations for K-12 educators and support staff. The hike is only $400 per month, but hopes the revenue outlook will allow a bigger bump in pay.
“It’s not enough. I know that. But it is one step closer to bringing teacher pay back to the Southern Regional Average,” Edwards said. “And, I hope that in a few weeks, our revenue estimate will look even better, and we will be able to increase that investment.”
Other plans include a boost in funding for Early Childhood Education, along with a pay increase for faculty in higher education. He also promoted a plan to full $15.6 million towards higher education budget stabilization.”
The proposed budget also will include full funding of TOPS and an additional $13 million in funding, as well as an $11 million boost in funding for Go Grants.
Also, Edwards said his administration has worked closely with members of the Louisiana Women’s Legislative Caucus to propose House Bill 409, which would ensure faculty and staff are properly reporting Title IX violations per their university and system policies.
“I know there are other bills that could be beneficial, and I’m committed to working with legislators on this issue,” Edwards said. “The key is that we get this right, and that we do it now.”
He also addressed the gender wage gap, an issue he has promoted since his first year to office, but to little avail.
The issue remains a key priority for his administration, Edward said.
“You’ve heard me talk about this before, and you are going to keep hearing me talk about it until we actually do something,” he said. “It is beyond time. Frankly, it’s embarrassing.”
Edwards also reiterated his stance for a higher minimum wage, another issue that has not made much traction in the legislature.
The $7.25 per hour minimum wage has been in effect since 2009.
“We call essential workers heroes for continuing to work throughout this pandemic, yet, even when they work full time, we don’t pay them enough to cover their essential needs,” Edwards said. “This year, instead of including a specific minimum wage bill in my package, I am supporting any and all efforts to raise the minimum wage. So, my message to the Legislature is simple: pass a bill.”