Louisiana Governor: COVID-19 emergency declaration ending

A public health emergency declaration in effect since March of 2020 will end Wednesday in Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards told state lawmakers in a wide-ranging speech on the first day of the 2022 regular legislative session.

Opening day fell two years to the day after Louisiana recorded its first COVID-19 death. The Democratic governor’s mitigation efforts at times included mask mandates and strong limits on public gatherings that put him at odds with some Republican lawmakers and state officials. Although Edwards continually renewed the emergency status over two years, he largely eliminated the restrictions and mandates as the state’s coronavirus picture improved.

“If the circumstances call for it, I will not hesitate to declare another emergency. But God willing, we will never have to see such difficult mitigation measures in our state again,” he said. He noted that since the first emergency declaration was imposed on March 11, 2020, vaccines have been developed and new treatments have emerged.

Edwards outlined spending priorities in his proposed budget, which legislative committees have already begun reviewing. Louisiana, for the first time in years, is seeing significant revenue increases. In addition to higher projected tax revenues, there is an influx of more than $2.8 billion in one-time revenue — $1.4 billion from federal pandemic aid, $700 million of surplus from the 2021 fiscal year and $853 million higher-than-planned revenue for the current year.

Sounding what has become an administration theme since he introduced his budget proposal in January, Edwards said the state should not miss the opportunity to use the one-time revenue on capital projects, including $500 as an initial appropriation toward a new Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge, $100 million for an Interstate 10 bridge in Lake Charles and $500 million for water and sewer improvements statewide.

Some lawmakers have already questioned the Baton Rouge bridge appropriation, calling it premature when a site hasn’t yet been selected. The administration says dedicating the money would be an important step toward securing future financing for a project that could cost as much as $2 billion.

Edwards reiterated a call he made in January for $148 million for pay raises for Louisiana teachers and school support staff; $103 million for higher education, including more than $31 million for faculty pay raises; and $25 million more in early childhood education. He also called in the speech for added state supplemental pay for police and firefighters.

Edwards chastised lawmakers for failing to increase minority representation in Congress or the state House and Senate when they redrew maps to account for population shifts reflected in the 2020 census.

With Black people making up close to a third of the state population, Edwards vetoed a new congressional map that maintains the status quo with only one of six districts having a majority-minority population. That set up a possible override effort by lawmakers at the end of March.

Edwards didn’t veto legislative maps but was critical that minority districts weren’t increased in the state House or Senate, something lawmakers could revisit this session.

“Having personally witnessed redistricting twice now, I can say that the current process is not working,” Edwards, a former lawmaker, said. He called for creation of an independent redistricting commission to support the Legislature in future redistricting.

Edwards repeated his call for a higher state minimum wage and legislation addressing inequities in pay for women, efforts lawmakers have rebuffed in past years.

He addressed discontent among state residents with insurance companies in dealing with claims following hurricanes Laura, Delta and Ida.

“My legislative package includes a number of bills focused on hurricane deductibles, claim transparency, enforcing insurance fraud laws against bad actors,” Edwards said.

Edwards wore a blue-and-yellow ribbon and tie in support of Ukraine, currently under Russian invasion. A guest for the speech was Eddy Hayes, honorary consul for Ukraine in Louisiana.

Police misconduct also was addressed. While praising law enforcement and criticizing calls to “defund police,” Edwards said “the very few” officers who violate public trust must be accountable. He said his legislative package would include a bill making sure sure criminal malfeasance law apples to violations of constitutional rights by police officers.

The remarks came as Louisiana State Police face scrutiny by federal investigators and a bipartisan legislative panel. That stems from allegations of an attempted state police cover-up of the severe beating by state troopers of Black motorist Ronald Greene just before he died in custody in May 2019. The legislative panel is also looking into what Edwards knew about that case and when.

Edwards obliquely addressed some recently introduced bills he said “only serve to divide us.” He didn’t mention any specific bill or topic but he has sometimes been at odds with lawmakers over social issue legislation. He last year vetoed a bill banning transgender athletes from competing on school sports teams of their identified gender. The bill has been reintroduced this year.