By Jim Smilie
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards listed the expansion of the Medicare program as well as changes in state budgeting that erased a $2 billion deficit as two of the biggest accomplishments of his seven and a half years as Governor during remarks Tuesday to the Rotary Club of Alexandria.
“Medicare expansion was the easiest decision I ever made as governor. While my predecessor said we could not afford to do it, I would say we could not afford not to do it,” Edwards said, adding he knows there are people alive today who would not be alive if not for the expansion.
Regarding the budget, Edwards recalled that when he took office the state faced a $2 billion “fiscal cliff” budget shortfall. “We needed to make cuts, and we needed to raise revenue. The rules that apply to your home and business apply to state government, and surpluses are better than deficits,” he said. “Today, I can tell you that the $2 billion deficit is gone and we have $2 billion in the bank, and I am extremely proud of that.”
Edwards said the state finished the 2022 fiscal year with approximately a $700 million surplus and so far this year the state is on track to have a $900 million surplus. He noted that a state sales tax enacted to overcome the deficit will expire in 2025, the second year of the next governor’s term. If it is not renewed, experts predict an $800 million decrease in revenue.
So, Edwards said, if officials continue to stay the course and maintain the fiscal policies that are generating a $900 million surplus, the funding should be there to cover an $800 million decrease and avoid a new “fiscal cliff.”
Edwards said the current budget surpluses have enabled the state to make progress in a number of areas. A quarter of the surplus is required to go to the state’s “rainy day” fund, and another 10 percent is dedicated to reducing the state’s unfunded pension liability. But after the mandated allocations, there are still many other things surplus dollars can be used to fund.
“You can pay debt with surplus dollars, and we have done that,” Edwards said, adding the state saved more than $1.4 billion in interest payments by paying cash for some of the hurricane recovery projects thanks to surplus dollars.
Having extra funds on hand also enables the state to provide required matching dollars when federal grant opportunities come along. By having matching funds available, Edwards said the state was able to get millions of dollars in reallocation of grants to other states that were not ready to move forward with highway projects. “I don’t mind taking other state’s money and putting it on our roads,” Edwards said.
Speaking of roads, Edwards said under his administration more than 7,000 miles of roads and bridges have been improved. The roadwork was part of more than 2,000 infrastructure projects costing $5.5 billion.
Other priorities Edwards cited include reducing the “digital divide,” spending more than $177 million in the GUMBO program to bring broadband internet service to all parts of the state, and increasing funding for education, including K-12 as well as higher education. Edwards said he plans to ask the State Legislature for $3,000 pay raises for teachers in this year’s budget.
“Nothing will transform our state as much, as fast, as teaching our kids to read at an early age,” Edwards said.
Due to term limits, Edwards can’t run for re-election this fall. When his term of office ends on January 8, 2024, Edwards said he plans to “return to the home we have maintained in Tangipahoa Parish. I have a law license I plan to put to use,” he said. “I don’t plan to spend my time hunting and fishing, I can’t afford to do that yet.”
Edwards did admit there are some perks of being governor that he will miss. “It has been well over seven years since I looked for a parking spot,” Edwards said. “I live in the best public housing in the state. And the motorcycle escort to LSU games is really nice.”
Until his term ends, Edwards said “I will work extremely hard every day to do the best I can to continue to move our state forward. It’s been challenging, but a very good and rewarding time serving as your governor. I have enjoyed every single day.”