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Politicized speech earns obstinate Edwards D-minus

With equal parts pugnaciousness and disingenuousness, Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ highly-politicized 2017 State of the State speech laid out a truly flawed vision for Louisiana going forward.

One could gig Edwards – who appeared to need new contact lenses – for spreading a host of specific misperceptions and mendacious arguments in his address. For example, as if trying to bolster weaker arguments to come, he started by spreading the usual selective information about Medicaid expansion, concentrating on individual stories representing the several dozen of over 400,000 new enrollees who obtained medical treatment through the program, and alleged it would continue to save the state hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Of course, he ignored inconvenient truths about expansion. He did not mention that roughly half of the new enrollees likely dropped insurance from the private sector, socializing their costs onto taxpayers. Nor that “savings” come as a result of higher taxes on insurance and hospital visits passed down to people, nor that the escalating costs of the program – which may go much higher depending upon Medicaid reform coming out of Washington – that already increase on an annual basis each Louisianan’s share of the national debt by $500 (or, perhaps more precisely, for each federal income taxpaying filer in the state $1,200 each year) and will cost state taxpayers by 2020 hundreds of millions of dollars more extra, regardless of the hundreds of millions squeezed from them from those higher taxes that prop up current expansion spending.

Because the program as currently constituted vacuums up nearly 40 percent of all state-generated revenues, this is the real threat to Louisiana’s fiscal stability. But in Edwards warped world, he sees that not as a problem, but an opportunity. By driving Medicaid spending ever higher, he hopes to use that as leverage to increase the size of government, thereby displaying the very cynicism at the end of the speech he chastised against in policy-making.

Instead, he sees the problem as government not having enough money to do all that he wants, an expansion of government power which neither matches the agenda of the Republican legislative majorities nor most of what a majority of the state’s people want. And he had the arrogance and audacity to insinuate that opposition to his desires was somehow irresponsible because he claimed it did not offer an alternative.

That’s a lie. During the special session earlier in the year, Republican House of Representatives leaders presented multiple alternatives to Edwards’ full-bore use of the Budget Stabilization Fund to bail the state out of revenue shortfalls caused by suppression of economic activity from the very tax increases Edwards had championed, which he then fought strenuously against. It wasn’t that options to cut more from government than he wanted weren’t there, it’s just that he didn’t like these – but that doesn’t mean those don’t exist.

And if Edwards cares to look around, dozens of bills filed for the regular session that kicked off today contain all sorts of thoughtful reductions in government spending and revenue increases – changing low-yield refundable tax credits to nonrefundable, getting rid of wasteful exceptions such as the Motion Picture Investors Tax credit, junking unproductive statutory dedications and the separate funds attached to these, increasing the responsibility of welfare recipients such as instituting a work/service requirement for able-bodied working-age adults to receive Medicaid that would save money, etc. – sponsored by both past opponents and supporters of his ideas. Nor can we accede to his penchant for creating false spending choice dichotomies that posit only programmatic reductions and eliminations as a consequence of reduced expenditures, ignoring that shaving budgets can force agencies to work smarter and more efficiently without service reductions that matter.

If anything, its Edwards who, on the biggest issue of fiscal reform, acts irresponsibly. Two weeks prior to the session start, he threw into play his corporate gross receipts tax idea to supplement the current corporate income tax (with adjusted rates). A proposal never discussed at all among state policy-makers, his forwarding it showed incredible weakness and laziness: rather than do the hard work of constructing a reform package to a byzantine corporate income tax regime that in the speech he called unworkable – and a blueprint for its reform which, as flawed as it was, he had delivered to him – he now proposes to keep that system intact and simply slap another, even more complex, kind of tax on top of it.

Yet perhaps the most palpable understanding of the address derives from what has become the core conceptualization defining Edwards’ governorship – his articulated belief that opposition to him and his agenda stems only from partisanship, or electoral considerations, or political ambition that leads to unserious governing. More succinctly, Edwards’ view on things is self-evidently correct; therefore, opposition to him has no legitimacy, explainable by these baser considerations.

This insufferable attitude prevents any realistic appraisal of public policy options available and strays from a fundamental truth: Edwards simply purveys an entirely wrong-headed agenda that in the aggregate is destructive to Louisiana and the life prospects of its citizens, assailing their property and liberty; that the real reason why opponents fight him. Repeatedly when mentioning various issue areas in the speech, by attempting to delegitimize opposition through ascribing obstructionist motives to it, he tries to avoid the very policy debate he said he welcomed during the address that ultimately would prove how out-of-step he is with Louisiana’s majority.

Edwards probably realizes the make-or-break nature of this session to his political future: unless he gets fiscal reform and a balanced budget on his terms, he becomes a one-term governor with little historical impact. This explains the combative tone of the speech. But such tone-deafness as he displayed throughout it earns this effort a D-minus, kept from failing only by advocating some helpful items such as in the area of criminal justice.

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