On Sunday, in his opening address to the special session of the Louisiana legislature, Gov. John Bel Edwards pulled no punches, urging lawmakers to work with him in order to solve the largest budgetary crisis in state history and answering his critics, particularly State Treasurer John Kennedy, head on.
It was, without question, the most impressive and compelling speech of his political career, weaving in real-life stories about the consequences of inaction, like a little boy named Braden who suffers from Leigh Disease and relies on the New Opportunity Waiver program for health care; both he and his mother were in the audience for the governor’s speech.
So too were the two LSU professors who made international news last week when they and a team of researchers revealed evidence of gravitational waves. It is being hailed as the biggest discovery in physics in a century, and as Gov. Edwards reminded the legislature, their work is a prime example of what we can do when we invest in public higher education.
Sunday’s speech also marked a noticeable shift in both tone and style from the largely subdued remarks Gov. Edwards had delivered only days before on statewide television, reminding those who followed Edwards when he served in the legislature that, although he is typically soft-spoken, he is perfectly capable of turning on the heat when necessary.
If Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits had been lulled into believing that they could win against a pliant, newly-elected Democratic governor merely by repeating the same hackneyed talking points about “out of control” spending and welfare fraud, they should now be disabused of that belief.
“There are some that will tell you we have a spending problem. That simply ‘tightening our belts’ will eliminate this historic deficit, but let me be clear – we can’t just cut our way out of this crisis,” Edwards said. “It simply isn’t possible to always do more with less; otherwise, one day, you could do everything with nothing. The world just doesn’t work that way.”
More than anything else, his speech was a concise, full-throated repudiation of the Louisiana Republican Party’s claim as the party of “fiscal responsibility.” “As you know, we’ve had budget deficits in Louisiana for eight straight years, and rather than make the structural changes we needed, instead one-time funds were increasingly used to patch budget shortfalls. Today, all of that money is gone,” Edwards said. “Make believe efficiencies, more and more tax giveaways, and privatization schemes that actually increased costs all further exacerbated the problem.”
Over the last several days, as the scope and magnitude of the budget crisis have come into focus and as Edwards and his administration have rolled out a series of proposals to help close the enormous gap, the new governor has been a punching bag for conservative Republicans. They’ve attempted to blame him for a disaster he inherited, an inheritance that was a direct result of their own failed leadership and fiscal negligence. They’ve argued that the new governor is a liar because he campaigned against raising taxes, completely ignoring the fact that, up until a week before the election, the size of our deficit had been obscured through the Jindal administration’s smoke and mirrors or that, even once it was revealed, it was dramatically underestimated.
They’ve even suggested that Edwards himself is at fault because, as a state representative, he voted for five of Gov. Jindal’s eight budgets, ignoring the fact that Edwards and every other member of the legislature had relied on the Jindal administration’s assurances that those budgets were, in fact, balanced and suggesting that it would have been better if then-State Rep. Edwards acted as a blindly obstructionistic ideologue and not as a principled and productive pragmatist. It’s also a patently disingenuous line of attack, because, during his time in the legislature, John Bel Edwards was Bobby Jindal’s fiercest critic and the very people who now blame him for voting in favor of five budget bills were Jindal’s biggest cheerleaders at the time.
But the most insidious and vapid attacks have come from State Treasurer John Kennedy, who, less than a month after being sworn into office, is now running for U.S. Senate. Kennedy demanded and received statewide television airtime on Thursday, as the “Republican response” to Gov. Edwards’ speech on the budget shortfall. He attempted to immediately invalidate everything the governor had said about the size and scale of the crisis, blaming the problem on Medicaid patients and bloated consultant contracts and claiming that he had personally delivered a plan to the governor that listed over 400 ways to cut spending.
The truth is: Even if you combined all of the 400 cost-cutting proposals Kennedy outlined, Louisiana would still be $2 billion short of its nearly $3 billion deficit, hardly a solution. What’s worse and even more insulting (and was never mentioned by Kennedy): His proposals are based entirely on studies done six, fifteen, and twenty-one years ago. Remember those years? Back when Louisiana operated with a surplus.
John Kennedy doesn’t have any new ideas; he doesn’t have any solutions; he has campaign talking points that are designed to appeal to the low-information voters he believes he needs to bolster his campaign.
On Sunday, Gov. Edwards went directly after Treasurer Kennedy. “So, I ask you, when someone comes to you and says we can cut our way out of this crisis – that we have a spending problem and not a revenue problem – that there are painless options that solve the problem and they point to studies that are 15 and 20 years old – you should demand specifics because here is what is at stake,” he said.
And he wasn’t finished.
“Let’s ignore the self-serving voices of candidates running for office,” he said. “After all, that’s what got us in this mess. Instead, let’s amplify the voices of the solution-driven leaders here who have the courage to actually solve problems before us.”
When you and your political party have bankrupted an entire state, put critical services like health care for disabled children and the elderly at risk, and jeopardized the sustainability of higher education, you can no longer claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility. If you claim to be a champion of fiscal responsibility, then you need to earn that title through action, not just words.
It’s time to act.