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Speech signals Edwards knows his weakness

Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ address at the start of the Louisiana Legislature’s special session yesterday confirmed one thing: he’s in trouble, he knows it, and now so do we.

Edwards delivered a speech imploring that he and the legislative branch’s Republican leadership – although really pitched at the House of Representatives – to work together, yet was one relentlessly partisan and tone-deaf to real world data and experience. It strung together numerous talking points that don’t stand up to the glare of reality. Such as:

We addressed that [2016] shortfall by taking a balanced approach of revenue, strategic spending cuts, significant savings, and economic growth …. [S]ome want to argue that these weren’t real [spending] cuts.

This referred to Republican reaction to a ludicrous list of “cuts” Edwards released full of double counts, reductions subsequently reversed, delayed payments, and counterproductive actions that will cost more in future years, all of which served to inflate wildly the figure he claimed. No one has argued that no reductions occurred – a relatively minor decline that incidentally Edwards fought all the way – just that he ham-handedly exaggerated these.

By contrast, spending from state sources grew at twice the rate of inflation under his leadership.

Meanwhile, “economic growth” was at best tepid, even after the state came out of a prolonged slump caused by a freefall in energy prices, lagging the rest of the country – as a direct result of Edwards’ tax and spend agenda.

What is disrespectful to the people and families of this state is for you to take that position [of making spending cuts] and then also insist that you are not the one that has to make the tough and painful choices; instead you want to put those decisions off on someone else.

The real disrespectfulness is not what Edwards cites, but his disrespect for the Louisiana Constitution. That document required him to submit a budget based upon existing revenues, and also gave him the option of appending alternatives. Weeks ago, he reiterated this line over and over to cajole legislative Republicans into either listing paring they would want to see in government or to endorse the permanent tax increases he prefers, on incomes and corporations.

They wouldn’t take the bait, and humiliatingly and vindictively he offered up a budget designed to harm rather than ameliorate. Humiliatingly, because now he is the face of indiscriminate budget slashing and owns such cuts if these happen. Vindictively, because he had so many other alternatives; just reviewing the state’s largest discretionary area of expenditure, he could scrap Medicaid expansion, institute managed care for Medicaid waiver programs, and lobby for other changes that could slash half of the forecast deficit without renewing any taxes.

Those things he can do as governor, and it’s about time he started to do his job and quit griping about others who refuse to accede to his tax-and-spend agenda. If there’s any shaming deserved surrounding all of this, it’s him who earns it.

[W]hen you say that government should spend less, [w]hat you really mean is that government should do less …. But it would mean reduced opportunities for Louisiana’s kids to go to college. It would mean reduced opportunities for health care for the neediest and most vulnerable among us. And it would mean reducing law enforcement’s ability to do its job, and it would mean inadequate funding for a host of other critical priorities.

Hogwash. See above. Edwards’ simply is creating false choices because he doesn’t want to lead, but to bully. And there are other options still, such as asking recipients of welfare largesse to pay their fair share as in Medicaid co-payments that cost less than a pack of cigarettes (nearly 30 percent of adult Medicaid clients smoke), an alternative he included in the special session call, or to reduce corporate welfare to moviemakers (which he didn’t).

Our economy is improving …. Unemployment has dropped to its lowest point in 10 years and more folks are out looking for and finding jobs than when we started this journey in 2016. And yes, there has been wage growth as well.  And I tell you, the growth of our civilian labor force, the measure of how many people are out looking for jobs, jumped from 50th in the country in 2016 to 25th in 2017.

Louisiana’s unemployment has fallen in large part because people gave up looking for work during Edward’s two years. Because during his first year the state ranked dead last in workforce participation growth and came up to the middle in the next year, the state’s rate remains in the bottom half-dozen of states with hardly any more jobs existing at the end of last year as when Edwards took office.

Naturally, the figures he selectively uses lag national averages. And, there’s been “wage growth” – barely; at 2 percent using the latest data from the second quarter of 2017, it doesn’t come close to the national rate of 3.2 percent year-over-year. In every major way, Louisiana’s economy has underperformed the nation’s during Edwards’ term, if showing any progress at all.

There are students currently on TOPS [the Taylor Opportunity Program for Student] and even more high school students who are about to start college who need to know what their tuition will be next fall and if they’ll have the support of TOPS.  For many of those students, that’s the difference between staying in Louisiana or leaving.

This argument, often made additionally by higher education mandarins, never has made any sense. Out-of-state tuition universally is higher than paying to go to a state school, so any student wanting to head across the border must rack up good-sized scholarship dollars. Yet they should do the same in state, so, ultimately, TOPS doesn’t make a difference. It’s an entirely spurious talking point.

[The Arc of Louisiana] are one of the providers for our waiver services, many of which face elimination should the cliff [forecast deficit created because of the sales tax expiration] not be fixed.

Hogwash. See above the actions Edwards could take or advocate to eliminate this possibility. Again, he presents a false dichotomy designed to scare people into accepting his big government agenda.

[My plan] calls for lowering the state’s sales tax and implementing many of the reforms that your task force recommended.

[C]ompromise means you get some of what you want in exchange for accepting some of what you don’t want, and I know we are headed in the right direction. We know what needs to be done. Economist after economist, task force after task force, over several decades and during Democratic and Republican administrations, have recommended long-term solutions to our problems, and yet we continue to ignore their advice.

Indeed they have, but, yet again, Edwards presents false choices. He refuses to decouple tax reform with tax increases, and it would be fascinating to see what would happen if lawmakers passed his “plan” but made it revenue neutral. Would he have the guts to lead and sign it into law, or would he veto it and posture?

However, and more importantly, it would be reckless for the Legislature to make such changes permanent and then declare tax reform done and dusted. The straitjacketed nature of Edwards’ call simply prohibits any genuine, comprehensive fiscal reform for the long run. Again, his rhetoric is just another attempt to panic the Legislature into permanent tax increases to lock in inflated government without searching for efficiencies and proper prioritization.

That’s what came from the prepared speech. It’s all in on growing government, knowing there’s little chance legislators would pursue that during the next, election year. He gambles his political future on achieving this agenda now.

But his true desperation showed through in remarks he added towards the end. Again, note that despite all the platitudes about working together, the speech presented a distorted view of the issue designed to blame opponents of his agenda as obstructionist and/or driven by politics. And he briefly unmasked this underlying theme when he alluded to a “partisan political organization masquerading as a trade organization,” apparently a shot at the interest group the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry that scores legislators on votes dealing with taxing, spending, and regulating.

For a governor to do this baldly admits weakness, by implying a bunch of individuals outside of government stands equal with him in influence. So, not only does he feel he has to shoot craps with this special session, he also transmits to the world he does it from a position of weakness. Which exactly emboldens his opposition to do pursue its agenda to close out the shortfall, regardless of his.

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