End of the Road: Rick Ward ends 11-year Louisiana Senate career

Staff Report

Rick Ward’s senatorial career included difficult decisions brokered in the final minutes before the end of a legislative session.

The final hours of the 2022 session were not that way for Ward.

State Sen. Rick Ward sits quietly before the state Senate convenes for the final time before his resignation takes effect. He resigned at the end of the legislative session.

Fifteen minutes before the Senate convened for the final time in the 2022 session, Ward sat quietly on a bench in the back of the chamber at the State Capitol, where he cast votes for the final time in his 11-year run as District 17 senator.

A special election is set for Nov. 8 to finish Ward’s term, which expires in 2024. A runoff, if necessary, will be Dec. 10.

Brusly resident Caleb Kleinpeter and former Sen. Rob Marionneaux have confirmed they will run for the seat.

Amid the rumors swirling about that election, Ward reflected on the state’s fiscal situation and the challenges he endured through the years.

The final day was a stark contrast from his earlier days in office.

During a session with a budget surplus higher than expected – some of it from sales taxes and a chunk from one-time federal revenue – passage of a $38 billion budget seemed easy and anticlimactic.

“Right now, we’re tying loose ends,” said Ward, R-Port Allen. “I’ve had that moment to pause and realize it’s almost over.”

A new Mississippi River bridge will go down as his biggest legacy.

“There’s a group of us who worked hard for new investment in infrastructure,” he said.  “For me, the top of that mountain was a big investment toward a new bridge.

“We’re leaving with that in place, and I can’t say I would’ve moved on had that not been done,” Ward said.

He said he remembers the tougher times, particularly the first session under Gov. John Bel Edwards when the state faced a $900 million budget shortfall from the Bobby Jindal administration.

Weeks of haggling ended in June 2016 when lawmakers approved a budget with deep cuts less than two minutes before the session ended.

“It’s easier to move the chess pieces around when there’s more money instead of when you decide what cuts have to be made, or what new revenue has to pass in order to balance it,” Ward said.

Deep deficits between the administration of Jindal and the first year under Edwards made work far more difficult in Baton Rouge.

Much of the stress stemmed from uncertainty.

Nobody knew the deficit was coming, but it was hundreds of millions of dollars more than anyone anticipated, Ward said.

“There’s no good solution there – you either raise revenue or cut programs,” Ward said.

A 1-cent sales tax Edwards recommended in 2017 drew mixed reaction from voters.

It did not surprise Ward, but the drop to a half-cent was a different story.

“When we dropped half of the full penny, some people asked why we let it go when it could’ve gone to infrastructure,” Ward said. 

As he left office, he alluded to a concern about the fiscal direction for the next several years.

The influx of one-time revenue has kept state coffers afloat, but lawmakers need to act with caution once those funds are spent and not replaced.

Meanwhile, the other half-cent of that state sales tax falls off the books in 2025.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what a new Legislature decides to do with that,” Ward said. “That’s about a half-billion, and you probably won’t have funds to cover that gap.

“That’s why we’re at least careful not to grow recurring expenditures because our state finances have not grown in a way that can sustain that,” he said. “We have to be careful about that.”

Ward hinted earlier this year about a run for governor.

He said those plans are off the table, at least for now.

“I will step back, go into the private sector and enjoy that for a while,” Ward said.