By Kaylee Poche and Ryan Noonan
LSU Manship School News Service
Gov. John Bel Edwards will have to put his personal popularity on the line to rally support for his proposals to close a $1 billion state budget gap if he continues to face resistance from Republican lawmakers, political strategists say. Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the South, on Friday called the Legislature into a special session, starting Feb. 19, to see if he can reach a compromise with Republican leaders over how to replace the revenue that the state will lose when a temporary increase in the sales tax expires this summer. Edwards has proposed several alternatives for replacing the money the state will lose. But Republican leaders want to include cost-saving measures in any deal.
“The challenge for the governor is that he is going to have to sell it using his personal popularity and going in and saying, ‘Look guys, I’m the one that has to ultimately put this budget together and manage it, and we don’t have the dollars,’” said Len Sanderson, who served as chief of staff to former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer and now has his own consulting firm. Edwards is the most popular Democratic governor in the country, with a 56 percent approval rating, according to surveys conducted by a market research firm late last year.
As a retired Army Ranger who supports some conservative ideas, Edwards has seen his approval rating rise from 45 percent in May 2016 even in a mostly red state like Louisiana. Supporters say his success with some Republican-leaning voters–and the fact that he has offered the most specific proposals for solving the problems so far–could help him get his proposals through the Legislature. “Well, I mean, he’s doing everything that he can because he has proposals out there,” said James Carville, a former strategist for President Bill Clinton who is now an LSU professor.
“I think he’s doing what any normal person would do — he’s trying to force a counterproposal so they can have a basis for compromise.” But others analysts say the governor’s popularity might not be enough to persuade some conservative lawmakers to vote against their principles and accept his propositions. Bernie Pinsonat, a political pollster in Baton Rouge, doubts that Edwards, who is up for reelection next year, will be able to persuade voters to side with him over Republicans in the Legislature. “It’s not his message,” Pinsonat said. “His message is running into the reality of red-state voters who don’t particularly like government spending.” “The people back home trust their Republican legislators more than him,” he said, adding, “You can’t PR that.”
Most of Edwards’ revenue proposals come straight from the recommendations made more than a year ago by a bipartisan budget task force led by LSU economist Jim Richardson. Edwards’ plan includes expanding the state sales tax to services, removing some business tax exemptions and making permanent reductions to certain tax credits and deductions. House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, has said the Republicans would not agree to extend the sales tax to services. He would like to expand a website with state spending data to promote more transparency and change the formula for placing caps on any growth in state spending. Barras wants to see any new revenue measures coupled with new requirements that Medicaid recipients work and pay a part of their medical cost. Edwards has said he would be willing to consider those changes. For Edwards, Sanderson said, “The challenge is going to be delivering a message that’s so compelling that it makes it difficult for the legislators to vote against it.” But, he said, “the truth is, these days, a governor is going to have to go into the field, and he is going to have to almost go over the head of the legislators.” He said the governor needs voters to help him deliver his message to the lawmakers.
Edwards has just 10 days leading up to the special session to rally public support, and he might be able to use media attention to his advantage. “You’re calling the special session, and every day you’re in the press pointing it out,” Carville said. He said he thought Edwards had been “pretty aggressive and vocal about the whole thing.” But, he said, the special session could end up looking a lot like last year’s legislative sessions, when Edwards and the Republicans failed to reach an agreement on how to deal with the budget shortfall. “I guess they are going to try to hold out by being against the governor’s plan,” Carville said, “and maybe, at some last minute, come up with some type of band-aid solution and kick it down to next year.”