Session opens with virus announcement
By Maria Marsh, Catherine Hunt and Paige Daniel
LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — Gov. John Bel Edwards on Monday disclosed the first case of coronavirus in Louisiana, a Jefferson Parish resident who was hospitalized in Orleans Parish.
Although the case of covid-19 has yet to be confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control, the state is treating it as a “presumptive positive,” he said.
“Now together we all — as a government, as health care systems and providers, as schools, businesses and as neighbors — must take action and be vigilant to prevent the spread of this virus in our great state,” Edwards said.
Edwards made the announcement as he addressed the Louisiana Legislature to begin this spring’s session.
Edwards told returning legislators, as well as 45 freshman representatives and 20 freshman senators, that the state can move forward only through bipartisanship, especially in areas where it does worse than other states, including education and the cost of auto-insurance.
Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, won re-election last fall. Republicans gained more seats in the Legislature and now have a supermajority, or two-thirds of the seats, in the Senate. They are now only two seats away from holding a supermajority in the House.
One of the biggest issues that the Legislature will face this session is how to lower insurance premiums.
Louisiana residents pay the second highest auto-insurance rates in the country, behind only Michigan. Little has been done in the past four years on this front, and lowering rates ranks high on the agendas of both Edwards and Republican lawmakers.
“Auto insurance costs too much in Louisiana, period,” Edwards said.
Edwards would like to shift from auto-insurance rates being based on an individual’s sex, profession and other personal aspects. He proposes having flat basic rates that fluctuates with an individual's driving record.
He said, for instance, that some insurers now charge higher rates to widows, people with poor credit scores and even deployed servicemen.
“We have 130 guardsmen currently mobilized, and we are about to have nearly 2,000 more deployed at the end of the year,” Edwards said. “And we should do everything in our power to make sure they are not penalized when they return.”
Republicans lawmakers have said they will continue to try to reduce premiums by changing the state’s litigious climate. Edwards said he was willing to seek compromises with the Republicans in that area, known as tort reform.
Edwards’ proposed budget for the next fiscal year, starting July 1, makes new investments in education at every level. Edwards said that early childhood education is his top priority with his budget proposal including an additional $25 million for it. Edwards believes that the seeds for a college education are laid in preschool.
Edwards budget proposal also includes $39 million in new funding for K-12 education.
Edwards recommends that all $39 million be committed to additional teacher pay raises.
“Before the end of my second term, we will have raised teacher pay to at least the Southern regional average,” he said. “We took the first step last year by giving educators & support workers their first raise in a decade. But we aren’t done yet.”
Edwards committed to fully funding the TOPS scholarship program and included a $30 million increase in his budget for higher education.
“For 10 years, Louisiana disinvested in higher education more than anyone else in the country, and we suffered the consequences” Edwards said. “For the next 10 years, let’s commit to reinvesting in higher education in order to strengthen our state.”
Louisiana is one of five states that has not adopted a state minimum wage. The minimum stands at $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage. Edwards aims to raise this to $9 an hour by January 2021 and then raise it to $10 an hour by July 2021.
Edwards also mentioned equal pay for men and women. Edwards said he plans to support a bill by Rep. Barbara Carpenter that would “prevent employers from retaliating against employees who discuss or disclose their salaries” in hopes of closing the pay gap between men and women. Louisiana has the country’s largest pay gap, Edwards said.
Edwards has pushed for a high minimum wage and for gender pay equality in the past but has not gotten far on those issues with Republican lawmakers.