BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Urging the state to “reject the partisan rancor and dysfunction that plagues Washington,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards began his second term Monday without the budget crises that crowded out other debates across his first four years, but with a more conservative Legislature that could create new clashes over spending.
The 53-year-old Democrat took his oath of office on the steps of the Louisiana Capitol, in a rainy ceremony overshadowed by the college football national championship between LSU and Clemson in New Orleans. The game sidelined the traditional black-tie inaugural ball, as Edwards and many other Louisiana officials were going to watch LSU in the Superdome on Monday night.
The Deep South’s only Democratic governor, Edwards stunned Republicans with his reelection victory in the ruby red state — overcoming President Donald Trump’s efforts to unseat him. The moderate governor drew enough cross-party support for a win with his focus on bipartisan, state-specific issues.
He continued the theme at his inaugural ceremony, again dubbed “Louisiana First.”
“The primary reason we have been able to make so much progress is because we chose not to let the dysfunctional, hyper-partisan politics of Washington D.C. paralyze our state. We rejected the notion that people from different parties can’t work together in good faith,” Edwards said.
Six other Republican statewide elected officials also were sworn in for new terms: Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, Attorney General Jeff Landry, Treasurer John Schroder, Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain and Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon.
The 144-member Legislature was seated Monday morning, and elected its leaders.
Republican Sen. Page Cortez of Lafayette became Senate president, while GOP Rep. Clay Schexnayder of Gonzales was chosen to be House speakerwith the help of Democrats, in a contentious vote that splintered Republicans.
Edwards’ swearing-in ceremony followed a tightly-coordinated script of pageantry laid out through years of inaugurations. Intermittent rain – along with the football championship game – thinned the crowds this year, though hundreds of people attended.
A West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, Edwards was a state House lawmaker when he won the governor’s seat in the 2015 election. In his first term as Louisiana’s 56th governor, he expanded Medicaid, lowering the state’s uninsured rate below the national average, and championed a bipartisan rewrite of criminal sentencing laws that reduced the prison population.
The term was marked by disputes with House Republicans over how to stabilize Louisiana’s finances and end the cycle of hefty budget gaps Edwards inherited from Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Edwards and the House GOP wrangled about finances across 10 legislative sessions over three years before agreeing on a package of tax increases that ended the shortfalls. In the final year of the term, Edwards and lawmakers plugged new money into teacher pay raises, early childhood education and investments in public colleges.
The governor is proposing another round of hikes in education spending this year, focusing in particular on early learning programs.
“We know that education is the key to economic opportunity and that a pathway to prosperity must begin at the earliest stages of life,” he said.
But Edwards will be negotiating for boosted spending with a more conservative Legislature, reconfigured by term limits and with lawmakers who ran on cutting taxes and curbing government.
In the spring legislative session, Edwards said he’ll again try to raise Louisiana’s minimum wage, an idea repeatedly rejected by lawmakers. He also talked of increased spending on road and bridge projects, workforce training initiatives and coastal restoration work in a state that has been washing away for years.
“I am excited to report that over the next four years, for the first time in the history of our coastal program, we will break ground on projects that will restore more land than we expect to lose,” the governor said.
The inauguration featured a 19-cannon salute; a flyover by F-15s with the Louisiana National Guard; prayers; and hymns sung by college choirs. Actress Lynn Whitfield, a Baton Rouge native, read the Maya Angelou poem “Continue.” The governor was sworn in by Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson.
Among those attending were Jindal and another former governor, Democrat Edwin Edwards, now 92, who served a record four terms as governor and has become a close friend of John Bel Edwards.
The administration didn’t provide an estimate of the inauguration’s cost. Money is raised through private donations from supporters. Contributions are limited to $5,000 per person under state law, and the governor must file a report detailing the donations and spending within 60 days.