Edwards reflects on his first year as governor
BATON ROUGE- Governor John Bel Edwards gave his remarks on his first year in office Wednesday.
A full transcript of the governor's remarks can be found below:
Good afternoon. Thank you all for being here.
A year ago today, I took the oath of office with a vision for a better Louisiana. A better Louisiana to work in, to live in, and to go to school in. My vision was simple – Put Louisiana First.
None of us knew that day what the year would bring. We were just beginning to realize the extent of our budget crisis. We didn’t know that over the course of the year 56 of our 64 parishes would receive federal disaster declarations. We didn’t yet know about the tragic shootings that would happen in July or that we would lose three brave law enforcement officers to a heinous act of violence.
But on that day one year ago, from the steps of the Capitol, you heard me say that Louisiana’s brightest days are ahead. Today, as I begin my second year as your Governor, I’m going to say it again. Louisiana is headed towards a bright and prosperous future.
Now, with all of the challenges we faced in 2016, you might wonder why I am still so optimistic one year later. But, I’ll tell you what - I’m even more optimistic about our future because I’ve seen what all we can accomplish in one year in spite of the significant obstacles we’ve faced.
And today, I want to take a moment to highlight some of the good things we’ve accomplished together and discuss some of the things we’ll be focusing on in the year ahead.
Tomorrow is another one year anniversary, and we’ll celebrate one of the things I’m most proud of from my first year. On my first full day in office, I signed an executive order to expand the Medicaid program in Louisiana. Since coverage began five and a half months ago, more than 370,000 working poor people of our state have health care coverage who didn’t before – all because we brought our federal tax dollars back to Louisiana to help our own citizens. Tomorrow, you will meet some of the citizens whose lives have literally been saved or changed because of the Medicaid expansion. In the process of doing this, we saved the state of Louisiana $184 million in the first year alone.
But that’s not the only way we’re helping create healthier families in Louisiana. In September, we announced a partnership with Our Lady of the Lake to bring a much needed emergency room to North Baton Rouge to provide the families in that community the access they’ve needed for so long.
Speaking of strengthening families, the Department of Children and Families Services found more permanent homes for foster children over the past year than in any year on record. That’s 532 families that welcomed 735 children into their hearts and homes.
For the first time in many years, we made multimodal transportation a priority and began addressing our neglected roads, bridges and ports. Among the many transportation highlights from this past year is the $100 million in FASTLANE grant funds we received – the fourth largest award in the country. By bringing home our federal tax dollars to help our people in Louisiana, we are able to make critical infrastructure investments all across our state.
And while this is a tremendous accomplishment, I’m cognizant of the fact that we have a $12 billion backlog that we have to address. Last week, the transportation task force, which includes elected officials of both political parties, business leaders and community leaders, made their recommendations about possible solutions to this problem, and I look forward to working with the legislature to address the issues raised in this report.
We’ve also been committed to strengthening our state’s economy by promoting Louisiana’s attractive business climate and putting our people back to work. The Louisiana Department of Economic Development led the charge this year to secure 12 new projects for Louisiana in 10 different parishes, totaling over $21.6 billion in capital investment and 5,638 total new jobs.
The Louisiana Workforce Commission helped 172,427 Louisianans find jobs this year, and we are thrilled to report that the Baton Rouge and Lake Charles areas hit all-time employment highs in October. Louisiana’s healthcare industry reached record employment in October as well. We know a strong economy requires a strong, skilled workforce, which is why we used our Incumbent Worker Training Program to expand the skillsets of 34,584 Louisiana workers in 2016, and we are working to double the more than 3,500 apprentices currently taking part in our registered apprenticeship program.
I’m also incredibly proud of the work Secretary Joey Strickland and his team have accomplished in turning around our Department of Veterans Affairs. This year, through legislation, I expanded the Military Family Assistance Fund to include veterans as well as active duty military personnel. That means that, for the first time, we were able to help more than 1,000 veterans and their families with financial assistance of more than $385,000, including flood relief to help the more than 171,000 veterans directly affected by the August flood. We also passed legislation allowing the Secretary to negotiate or waive burial plot fees, so that a spouse can be interred with their veteran. Beyond that, we have now staffed our parish veterans benefit offices so that all 336,000 veterans who live here in Louisiana don’t have to travel outside of their parish to file for VA benefits. And we have cleaned up and addressed the remaining audit issues in all five of our veterans’ homes in Louisiana, where our 785 veteran home residents are now each receiving the top-quality services they deserve.
Also important, we began the arduous task of stabilizing our finances after the worst budget crisis in our state’s history. Naysayers will tell you that I have only proposed raising taxes, but that would be wrong. In my first year alone, my administration made more than $850 million in painful government spending cuts. We’re producing honest budgets for the first time in nearly a decade. The budget gimmicks of the past are gone. We’re taking a responsible approach to balancing our budget while trying to protect our state’s most critical services - like higher education, for example. For the first time in 8 years we were able to stabilize funding for higher education and prevent the most severe cuts in nearly a decade. And for the first time in nearly a decade, tuition increases were the smallest they’ve ever been. But I know that’s not good enough for students and families across the state, and we have to do better.
We still have a lot of critical work ahead of us. The Revenue Estimating Conference will be meeting soon and are expected to identify another deficit. We cannot and will not live in a financial fantasyland. We knew the task of righting so many years of mismanagement would not be easy, nor would it happen over night.
I am not willing, however, to allow our budget problems to be balanced on the backs of our students or by sacrificing the health care of our most vulnerable citizens. This is especially pertinent when it comes to the ability to fully fund TOPS. The plan I presented last year would have fully funded our state’s flagship scholarship program. Those recommendations were by no means new ideas. In fact, experts have been saying for years that comprehensive tax reform is necessary to establishing a budget with stability and predictability. So I am, again, asking the legislature to continue working with me in this year on a realistic and responsible approach to solving our long-term budget problems.
In the coming year, flood recovery will also remain a top priority. My number one desire is to have every person affected by the March or August floods back in their homes, back in their communities, and back on their feet. On Friday, we submitted our final Action Plan for the first $438 million Congress approved for federal disaster assistance to Louisiana – more than six weeks ahead of the federal deadline, and we are well on our way to approving a plan for the next $1.2 billion approved as we wait for the federal guidelines. All the while, I will continue to work with our entire congressional delegation to bring home the additional $2 billion needed for a robust recovery.
Finally, looking ahead into 2017, we’re going to focus on real, bipartisan approaches to criminal justice reform. We began this critical work in 2016 with the passage of the Raise the Age Act. Before this law passed through our legislature with bipartisan support, 17 year olds who committed delinquent acts were automatically tried as adults. Because of Raise the Age, young people can now be held accountable for their actions in age-appropriate settings.
However, we’ve got more work to do if we’re going to end the days of Louisiana having the top spot in the country when it comes to our incarceration rate. The Justice Reinvestment task force will soon present their recommendations to safely reduce Louisiana’s prison population, strengthen probation and parole supervision in the community, and reinvest savings into evidence-backed prison alternatives. The difference between first place and second place when it comes to the incarceration rate is nearly $50 million per year, and by the end of my first term, Louisiana will not be at the top of this list. That work begins very soon.
For 365 days, Donna and I, along with our family, have been honored to call this place home. I am humbled to serve the most resilient, hard-working people in the country.
A year ago, I said that if there’s two things we’ll never run out of in Louisiana it’s gumbo and gumption. Little did I know how much that sentiment would be tested over the course of my first year in office, but I stand by it now more than ever before.
I’ve seen the best that our state has to offer, and I’ve seen how, even in the most challenging of times, a Louisianan’s bond with another Louisianan cannot be broken by water or gunfire. That bond is as thick as steel. We stand together, even in the most trying times and help each other out. As we faced each challenge that came our way, I felt that breeze of hope that got us here today – in every community meeting in the aftermath of the shooting of Alton Sterling, in the memorials of slain law enforcement officers and even as I toured this state to offer assistance to families whose homes were flooded.
I still feel that breeze of hope today. It’s what wakes me up in the morning. It is that desire to make our state the best it has ever been. It’s that desire from so many people across the state to Put Louisiana First. I share that with you each and every day.
The Louisiana spirit is alive and well, and from the bottom of my heart, I can’t thank the people of this great state for giving me this honor and I promise I will not let you down.
God Bless you all, and God Bless the Great State of Louisiana.
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