By Robert Mann
Former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s eight years of misrule set a low bar for leadership. It’s no wonder his successor, John Bel Edwards, cleared that subterranean hurdle during his first, eventful year in office.
That Edwards would eclipse Jindal wasn’t in doubt. As long as Edwards shows up for work, he’ll outperform his predecessor, who behaved as if Baton Rouge was the last place he wanted to be. The surprise near the end of Edwards’ first year in office is his resilient popularity as he cleans up Jindal’s fiscal mess.
It is no understatement to suggest Jindal bequeathed Edwards the worst fiscal crisis in Louisiana history. “It is something I inherited,” Edwards told me during an interview at the Governor’s Office on Dec. 20. “It is my responsibility to fix it, but the people of Louisiana fully understand I didn’t create the problem.”
Edwards acknowledges the public might “not like my prescription, but I think the diagnosis is obvious to everybody.” The diagnosis is a chronic, $2 billion budget shortfall, plugged with temporary taxes.
For now, the public understands the crisis is a vestige of foolish and dishonest budgetary decisions by Jindal and his legislative handmaidens. As early as next summer, however, voters might decide the problem belongs more to Edwards than Jindal.
I asked the governor, “When does this become John Bel Edwards’ mess?” He deflected the question. “We really have to fix this problem more than fix the blame,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of people know how we got where we are, but the most important thing is getting to a better place, and that’s what I’m working on every day.”
That “better place” means a reformed tax system generating revenue to support the government’s fundamental responsibilities, especially those gutted or neglected under Jindal. This includes health care, education and roads and bridges.
“I think most reasonable thinking people know that it is not true, as some say, that we don’t have a revenue problem,” Edwards told me. “We do have a revenue problem, and we should always try to spend in ways that are smarter, where we can root out waste, fraud and abuse.”
But deep cuts to education and health care, Edwards argued, don’t come without a severe cost. “We should [cut where we can],” he said, “but we can’t delude ourselves into thinking that we can withstand huge cuts and still have the state that we want to have that affords people opportunity for a better life.”
While the revenue crisis will test Edwards’ leadership, the new governor’s performance during several other crises during his first year might also be responsible for his impressive 63 percent job approval rating. He was a voice of calm and confidence in the chaos following the June shooting of Alton Sterling by a Baton Rouge police officer. He reprised his role as reassuring leader later in the month after three law enforcement officers were killed and another three wounded by a lone gunman near the Baton Rouge Police Department headquarters.
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