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Monday, January 11, 2016

John Bel Edwards takes office as Louisiana's 56th governor

Posted By on Mon, Jan 11, 2016 at 3:03 PM

click to enlarge John Bel Edwards delivers his inaugural address on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol.
  • John Bel Edwards delivers his inaugural address on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol.

John Bel Edwards, the Democratic state representative from Amite who triumphed over Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter to become Louisiana's 56th governor, took his oath of office this morning in Baton Rouge surrounded by family, friends and hundreds of supporters.

In his inaugural speech from the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol, Edwards struck a get-down-to-business tone, saying, "We must be honest with ourselves and one another. I can tell you I'd rather be here today inheriting a billion dollar surplus, than a $1.9 billion shortfall, but there isn’t a challenge we won’t meet." 

Louisiana's first Democratic governor since Kathleen Blanco left office in 2008 hit three major themes in his speech — poverty, education and the state's fiscal crisis. He said he would accept federal Medicaid dollars to expand Louisiana health care "tomorrow," adding, "Your tax dollars should not be going to one of the 30 other states that have expanded Medicaid when we are one of the states that expansion will help the most." He also said he would advocate for "a modest, but meaningful, increase to the minimum wage" (Louisiana has no minimum wage law of its own, instead using the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour) and legislation mandating equal pay for women. "Women in Louisiana make an average 66 cents on the dollar compared to men," Edwards said. "We are the worst state in the union for pay equity. That is unacceptable. Not just for my daughters, but for all women." 

He was less specific about education, saying the state "must make college more affordable. We can start by ending double digit tuition hikes. ... We must also increase need-based aid for students ready to enroll in colleges across Louisiana, and work towards a goal of funding higher education at 50 percent state support and at 50 percent tuition and fees."

The morning didn't come without a significant setback for Edwards, who supported state Rep. Walt Leger III, a New Orleans Democrat, for speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives. State Rep. Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican, had been expected to challenge Leger, but two other names surfaced at the last moment: New Orleans Democrat Neil Abramson and New Iberia Republican Taylor Barras. In the first round of voting, no one emerged with a majority, and Leger and Henry seemed headed to a runoff until Henry withdrew, setting up a victory for Barras. Leger was voted Speaker Pro Tempore, the second-highest House position — and the vote was unanimous, as it was in 2012 when Leger was first elected to the position.

In the state Senate, John Alario, a Republican from Westwego, was reelected President. Gerald Long, a Natchitoches Republican, was chosen Senate President Pro Tempore. 



Full text of Edwards' prepared remarks:

My fellow Louisianans:

I am grateful to be here today and thankful to everyone who has traveled from Amite and other places near and far to join us for this ceremony.

Governor Jindal, the first thing Donna and I want to do is thank you, Mrs. Jindal, and your staff for the efficient and gracious manner in which this transition has been handled. Your kindness and cooperation is a testimony that we can indeed work together for the common good of the state we all love.

Speaking of love, I want to thank the love of my life, my wife Donna, and our children Samantha Bel, Sarah Ellen, and John Miller. Also, I want to thank my mother, Dora Jean Edwards, and pay tribute to my late father Frank Edwards, Jr., who died while the campaign was underway. I miss him terribly and thank him for passing on to me a sense of service, commitment to others, and the value of hard work. I love my parents, siblings, and extended family and thank each of them for helping me stand before the state as Louisiana's Governor.

I especially want to thank all the people of Louisiana – those who have joined us here today and those spread out in each corner of the state.

We are here because you have chosen to rise above partisan politics and put Louisiana First. I was not a business-as-usual candidate, and I will not be a business-as-usual governor. I am, first and foremost, a proud Louisianan.

Like many of you, I grew up in a family that taught me the importance of faith. We filled an entire pew at church every Sunday, and the hardest catechism teacher I ever had was my mother, who taught me in the sixth grade.

Like many of you, I also grew up with a strong appreciation for the sportsmen’s paradise we live in. Some of my best memories are of camping with my father and six brothers. Every year, we would float the Tangipahoa River to Manchac, eating whatever we caught or killed along the way. But just in case we came up empty, we’d always bring along some sweet potato pie left over from Thanksgiving. And my favorite memories are those spent sitting around the campfire on cold nights in discussion and debate with my family.

In Louisiana, our land is diverse, our ideas are diverse, and our people are diverse. From the original Native American inhabitants to the French, Spanish, Acadians and Africans…

From the Yugoslavian oyster harvesters to the Sicilian strawberry farmers… Nearly every nation on earth has left its imprint on our culture.

Louisiana is an example to the rest of the country that diversity is a source of strength, not division. That is why I am confident that regardless of party we can band together to rebuild Louisiana. The status quo is not sustainable in a state that is anything but ordinary.

As we prepare to meet the mounting challenges ahead, I am reminded of General MacArthur’s farewell address to West Point that duty, honor and country should be rallying points “to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.”

My experience at West Point and my service as an army officer have molded the way I look at the world. Ever since Athens defeated Sparta over 2,500 years ago, and the history of that war was written, military officers have been trained to look at every challenging task in a three step process.

The first step is gathering all the information you can about the job at hand.

The second step is to ask yourself - and knowledgeable people around you - what are our options to successfully address the challenge and which ones best fit our mission and values. That’s the choice of a strategy.

And finally, step three is a decision on tactics. How are we going to get it done?

In military terms, victory is won by information (or intelligence), strategy and tactics. THAT is how I propose we proceed in our shared mission of putting Louisiana First.

We must be honest with ourselves and one another. I can tell you I'd rather be here today inheriting a billion dollar surplus, than a $1.9 billion shortfall, but there isn’t a challenge we won’t meet. We must be grounded in reality and see the facts as they are, not as we want them to be.

First, we need to acknowledge the harsh truths about poverty in our state.

We talk a lot about our abundant natural resources, but we need to talk more about the most precious natural resource God has entrusted to us - our children. In Louisiana, 1 in 4 schoolaged children live in poverty. That’s unacceptable and it MUST change.

It’s unacceptable when a parent’s hard work isn’t enough to pay the bills or go to a doctor. I’ve traveled from Algiers to Zwolle and met countless single mothers working for minimum wage behind a cash register at a gas station. Often, it’s one of several jobs they have, and they still battle to make ends meet. The faces are different, but their struggles are the same.

On top of not paying our workers a living wage, women in Louisiana make an average 66 cents on the dollar compared to men. We are the worst state in the union for pay equity. That is unacceptable. Not just for my daughters, but for all women.

Second, we’ve somehow forgotten that education is synonymous with opportunity.

In the past 7 years, we’ve cut funding for higher education by 700 million dollars – the largest disinvestment in the country – putting campuses on the brink of bankruptcy, and sending many of our best and brightest students out of state.

Tuition increases, also the highest in the nation, have priced many students out of their dreams and are making TOPS unsustainable.

For K through 12 education, while we've had some improvements, we rank 49th in academic achievement. And while our high school graduation rate is at an all-time high, we still fall below the national average.

Last, but certainly not least, we face a daunting fiscal crisis.

We can no longer afford to lurch from year to year, cobbling together temporary fixes and expecting to realize permanent sustainability. If we don’t fix the structural budget deficit, we can’t fix any of our other problems.

Those are the facts. We are one of the richest states in cultural and natural resources, yet our performance lags in almost every critical category.

There is a lot of serious work ahead of us. As Lincoln put it, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present.”

We are here because the people of Louisiana believe we can do better. By doing better, we will be better than these rankings suggest.

And we are not going to let you down. This mission is critical, and here are some of the strategies I propose.

We must make it possible for all Louisiana citizens to be healthy and prosperous.

So as promised, tomorrow I am going to accept the federal funding to expand Medicaid so that working families in Louisiana can get access to healthcare. Your tax dollars should not be going to one of the 30 other states that have expanded Medicaid when WE are one of the states that expansion will help the most.

We should make a modest, but meaningful, increase to the minimum wage and the legislature should finally pass effective equal pay so that women, the economic leaders of many households, get the same pay for the same work. We know that when women do well – children prosper too. This is the very definition of family values.

Next, we need to treat our educators with the respect they deserve and demand the best for our children.

It’s been proven time and again that a more educated and trained workforce is our greatest long-term economic generator. So we MUST make college more affordable. We can start by ending double digit tuition hikes. We cannot fund higher education on the backs of our students. Our state should support our public higher education institutions. We must also increase needbased aid for students ready to enroll in colleges across Louisiana, and work towards a goal of funding higher education at 50% state support and at 50% tuition and fees.

In K through 12 education, we need to promote challenging, Louisiana standards and curriculum, maintain a meaningful accountability system and end the overuse of costly standardized testing. We should also enhance and protect local control of public education so that taxpayers, voters, and local school boards are empowered to oversee the financial and educational decisions that impact the success of our children.

And finally, our top priority must be stabilizing the budget.

While all options are on the table, we’re going to make strategic budget reductions, increase efficiencies, accept OUR federal tax dollars back, and rework the failed system of tax incentives, credits and rebates, which bleed the state’s revenue and, too often, leave little to show for the spending.

Now, how are we going to make this happen?

By partnering with the legislature, business and industry, local governments, educators, stakeholders and working people all across this state.

By calling on the kind of discipline, steel-eyed focus, and determination to succeed… by moving ONWARD.

I can’t do it alone, and the enormous challenges we face will not be resolved overnight. But together, we will accomplish our mission.

Now is the time for full participation. I am calling on the legislature to work with me and pass sound solutions, and I’m calling on the people of Louisiana to constructively engage and share your thoughts and ideas.

It will be hard work, and it will take sacrifice. But it can be done. It MUST be done.

You can expect the unvarnished truth from this administration regarding the challenges we face, the solutions we propose, and the opportunities we seek.

The breeze of hope that got us here today will also drive a current of change as mighty as the Mississippi. But this river can’t flow unless the breeze continues. We must put action before idleness, unity before party, and citizenship before self in order to put Louisiana first.

Like you, I’ve been here through good times and bad. We are not a perfect state, but we are a resilient one. Following shared sacrifice, there WILL be shared prosperity. I am bullish on our future. Louisiana’s best days are certainly ahead, and I want you to be as excited and optimistic as I am.

Remember, after Katrina we battled back and, in fact, we still celebrated Mardi Gras. After the Red River flooded, families still gathered at the state fair. After the oil spill, we didn’t give up fishing for oysters and shrimp. The sugar cane still grows in Louisiana. Tourists still flock to the French Quarter. And new industries continue to emerge.

If there are two things we’ll never run out of in Louisiana – it’s gumbo and gumption.

The people of Louisiana want and deserve a state government as hopeful as they are. I pledge to you that we will deliver on that hope.

As Solomon prayed, “So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.” That will also be my prayer.

I spent nearly three years traveling this state asking for your votes and your prayers. Today, I simply ask for your support and your prayers for me and for this state. From the bottom of my heart, I cannot thank you enough for this incredible opportunity.

God bless you all, God bless the Great State of Louisiana and God bless the United States of America.

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