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Gov. Edwards' 2021 Regular Session Remarks

John Bel Edwards Administration
John Bel Edwards Administration

I want to thank Father Paul Yi for the opening prayer, the Jaguar Battalion and Brittany Jackson – a music teacher at Sharon Hills Elementary for the anthem, and Rep. Barbara Freiberg for leading the pledge of allegiance.

Good evening. Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser, members of the legislature, distinguished guests, and my fellow Louisianans:

I am honored to be speaking to you today from the campus of Southern University. Thank you, President Ray Belton for your hospitality and to your entire team for helping us put this event together following current COVID-19 mitigation measures. I also want to thank you for sharing your campus with the public as a hub for drive through testing and vaccinations. Your efforts have been nothing short of tremendous. In fact, this weekend, the Southern System administered over 1,000 shots.

Today, these bleachers are bare. But one day soon – if more people continue to get vaccinated and we hold down the transmission of the virus – we are going to fill this stadium once again. And I can’t wait to be here with you watching the Human Jukebox and the Jaguars take the field.

This is not typically how I deliver my opening speech for session, but then again, this has not been a typical year. Usually, as you know, I would be in front of a joint session of the legislature in the House Chamber, but I spoke to Speaker Clay Schexnayder and President Page Cortez and decided to change the venue in order to keep everyone safe and adhere to current CDC guidelines.

To the legislators who are here today following the opening of the 2021 Regular Session, thank you for your presence. I look forward to working with you and all of the legislators this session. I know this hasn’t been an easy year for you, your families or your businesses. COVID has taken far too many of our friends and colleagues.

Earlier in the pandemic, you even lost one of your own – Rep. Reggie Bagala. As you know, I lost a member of my own staff, April Dunn, around the same time. And then in December, Sen. Regina Barrow lost her husband of 36 years, James, to COVID. Sen. Barrow, I want you to know how much I appreciate the work you are doing, despite your own heartache, to encourage people to get vaccinated. 

To everyone watching, thank you for continuing to tune in and work with us as we navigate these uncertain times. I want to especially acknowledge those who were impacted by Hurricanes Laura and Delta. Please know that we are working hard every day with your local leaders, our Congressional delegation, and the Biden administration to address the many needs that remain in Southwest Louisiana. 

I am also joined today by a number of healthcare and frontline workers.

  • Cynthia Keller is the Lead Production Supervisor for Food and Nutrition Services for Lane Regional Medical Center in Zachary
  • Dr. Aldo Russo is the Regional Medical Director at Ochsner Medical Center in Baton Rouge
  • Cynthia Pitts is the environmental services supervisor for Baton Rouge General Medical Center
  • Eric Suire (Sw-eer) is a Respiratory Therapist for Woman’s Hospital
  • Belinda Beavers is the RN supervisor for the COVID ICU unit at Our Lady of the Lake
  • Chef Loni Trabeaux, with City Group Hospitality, knows firsthand how the pandemic has impacted the restaurant industry, but she’s also spent this time cooking meals for people experiencing homelessness
  • And Re’Keia (Ra-Key-Yah) Gallien has helped prepare over 30,000 meals a day for the East Baton Rouge School system

Please join me in welcoming these heroes this evening.
These individuals, as well as the thousands of others from across our state, are the reason we’re here today in a better place. And I am beyond grateful.

At my last State of the State address on March 9, 2020, I announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Louisiana. In that singular moment, everything changed. Since that day, there have been nearly half a million confirmed cases in the state.

On January 7, 2021 – only a few months ago – more people were in the hospital with COVID than at any other time during the pandemic, with 2,069 hospitalizations. Today, we have 308 people in the hospital with COVID.

And then there is the number that weighs heaviest on all of us. The loved ones we’ve lost.

10,241 of our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends and fellow Louisianans are no longer with us.

In 2020, COVID was the third leading cause of death in Louisiana, behind heart disease and cancer. The flu has never come close to holding that spot. One of our worst seasons for flu deaths was 2018-2019 when 1,550 people died. We’ve lost over six times that number from COVID.

Almost every day, for over a year now, you’ve heard these numbers and you’ve seen them increase. Number of new cases. Number of hospitalizations. Number of new deaths.

But numbers alone don’t begin to tell the whole story.

Nothing can measure the pain of a family celebrating their first holiday with an empty seat at the dinner table. 

Two numbers in the daily death count, added just a few hours apart, don’t do justice to the 60 years of marriage those two people shared together.

The numbers don’t adequately convey how long the ICU shifts have been. Or equally long hours of figuring out how to pay the bills after being laid off.  

Unfortunately, COVID is not the only burden that 2020 brought us. Three devastating hurricanes made landfall in Louisiana - two of them, Laura and Delta, came ashore just a few miles apart in Southwest Louisiana. And Laura was the strongest hurricane to hit the state since at least the 1850s. Thousands of homes were destroyed and lives were turned upside down, again. As I said a moment ago, we are still working to pick up the pieces and make communities whole again. We will not stop rebuilding. We will not stop making Southwest Louisiana stronger than ever.

For every story of loss, however, there has also been one of survival. Because Louisiana is a state full of unwavering faith and an enduring spirit.

I wish I could stand here today and say that COVID is behind us. We’re not quite there yet. That’s why we’re still wearing our masks and socially distancing and taking all the necessary precautions that we know work. Even more so now that there are variants of the virus spreading in our communities.

But there is hope. A couple weeks ago, we opened up COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 or older. We have three extremely safe and effective vaccines that are the ticket to ending this pandemic, and on Friday of this week, we’ll open our first Federally supported Community Vaccination Center in Baton Rouge. What a difference a year makes!

I know some of you have questions about the vaccines. That’s ok. Most of us, myself included, didn’t go to medical school. That’s why I have Dr. Joe Kanter with me at every COVID press conference. That’s why you see doctors and nurses on the news reaching out to the public. So when you hear me say the shots are safe and effective, that’s not coming from me. That’s coming from doctors and scientists and epidemiologists.

Doctor Jane Martin is a physician specializing in maternal-fetal medicine at Ochsner. And she is with us here tonight. Thank you, Dr. Martin!

Not only has she been educating patients and the public on the importance of getting vaccinated, Dr. Martin received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine while pregnant with her third daughter. She wants all patients to feel comfortable asking doctors about getting the vaccine so that they are able to make informed decisions about their own health that are based on facts.

Over 28% of Louisianans—more than 1.3 million—have already begun their vaccine series. We need as many people as possible to be in that number as soon as possible to put this pandemic behind us.

We have a new Vaccine Hotline you can call to schedule your appointment or connect with a medical professional who can answer your questions.

That number is 1-855-453-0774. Again, it’s 1-855-453-0774.

We’re not out of the woods yet, but we are moving forward. And that is what I want to talk to you about now. What’s next.  

Over the past year, we’ve been pushed to think outside the box. To work in new ways. Learn in new ways. Socialize in new ways. One thing is clear, we can absolutely do things differently.  So this legislative session, let us challenge ourselves to envision new ways of making Louisiana better for all of our citizens.

Tragedies like the ones we’ve faced often remind us of our shared humanity. But then things start to get back to normal, and we forget that for some, the road to recovery is much longer and more difficult.

Like you, I want Mardi Gras parades to roll again. I want festivals to resume. I certainly don’t want to have to wear a mask all the time.

But I don’t want post-pandemic Louisiana to look completely like pre-pandemic Louisiana - nor should it. Because we can do better.

The pandemic has highlighted inequities that persist in our communities – especially when it comes to health outcomes. These inequities were not created overnight, nor will they be eliminated overnight. They are the culmination of years of policies that our communities of color and low income populations have borne for generations. If we do not address these issues now, we are doing a great disservice to people who have already suffered so much.

That is why early on in the pandemic I established the Health Equity Task Force. It’s why we rolled out the Bring Back Louisiana campaign and are working to ensure all communities have access to the vaccine. It’s also why I created the Resilient Louisiana Commission to ensure that small businesses that have been devastated by this pandemic have a seat at the table and a path forward. Through this work, we have safely re-opened our economy and are quickly making up the ground we lost during the pandemic.

It’s why 5 years ago I expanded Medicaid to the working poor in Louisiana. Because of that decision, many more people have had access to a primary care physician and the ability to afford prescription medication in order to treat or control underlying conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID.

I know that we still have a lot of work to do in order to improve health outcomes, but I can’t imagine how many more people would have died this past year if not for Medicaid expansion.

Another way we’ve established groundwork for a more resilient Louisiana is through the creation of a Climate Initiatives Task Force last year. No state is more adversely impacted by climate change than Louisiana. But at the same time, no state is better positioned to be a leader in reducing carbon emissions and bolstering coastal resiliency. By 2050, our goal is to reduce carbon emissions to net zero and to have invested $50 billion in rebuilding Louisiana’s coast.

The reason I know we can get there is because we are working with – not against – the energy sector that sustains so much of Louisiana’s economy. Oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico continues to be important to Louisiana’s success. By working with these companies on forward thinking solutions, like carbon capture, we are going to make Louisiana more sustainable while also unlocking a whole new sector of economic and job opportunities.

It’s fitting that we’re on the campus of Southern University today because economic diversification and access to opportunity starts with education.

The budget that I have presented includes another pay increase for K-12 teachers and support staff. It’s not enough. I know that. But it is one step closer to bringing teacher pay back to the Southern Regional Average. And, I hope that in a few weeks, our revenue estimate will look even better and we will be able to increase that investment.

Another priority for additional funding is Early Childhood Education. I know that many legislators share this goal.

This budget also includes a faculty pay increase for higher education as well as $15.6 million towards higher education budget stabilization.

It also includes funds the TOPS program, which is estimated to receive another $13 million this year, and it includes a historic $11 million increase in funding for Go Grants.

I am joined today by Brandon Jones. He is a senior at LSU majoring in electrical engineering. Brandon graduated high school from Scotlandville and works to give back to his community through volunteer efforts. Brandon has received a Go Grant every year, and he credits that scholarship with the ability to stay in school and complete his degree. I also majored in engineering so Brandon, I know how hard you have had to study in order to earn this degree.

By increasing funding for Go Grants, we can help even more students like Brandon achieve their goals. Let’s give him a round of applause!

I want every student who walks on any campus in this state to have the opportunity to thrive. I also want them to go on to succeed in the workplace.

And simply put, we can’t accomplish this if we aren’t investing in higher education.

We also can’t accomplish this if students aren’t safe on their own campus.

My administration has worked closely with members of the Louisiana Women’s Legislative caucus to propose House Bill 409, which would ensure faculty and staff are properly reporting Title IX violations per their university and system policies. I know there are other bills that could be beneficial, and I’m committed to working with legislators on this issue. The key is that we get this right, and that we do it now.  

This isn’t the only way we are striving to make Louisiana a more just place to live.

We’re also introducing legislation to ensure that pregnant or post-partum workers have reasonable accommodations that promote the health of both mom and baby. I’ve seen businesses pivot to address health and safety measures quickly because of the pandemic. And, I applaud them for it. If they can do that, there is no reason a company can’t accommodate a worker during or after pregnancy. Louisiana continues to be one of the worst states in the nation for maternal and newborn health outcomes, but we’ve already made significant progress. Last year, we met our goal of reducing maternal mortality related to hemorrhaging and hypertension by 20 percent. I am confident that working with both healthcare partners and employers we can reduce even more preventable complications for mom and baby.   

Louisiana also continues to have one of the largest gender wage gaps in the country. My package includes pay transparency bills that are simple ways to address pay equity. You’ve heard me talk about this before, and you are going to keep hearing me talk about it until we actually do something. It is beyond time. Frankly, it’s embarrassing.

Because we know when women succeed, Louisiana succeeds, period.

Speaking of paying people what their worth…

At the beginning of this speech, I introduced you to some people who have been working on the frontlines of this pandemic. There are so many more frontline workers across our state in grocery stores, schools, and restaurants. Some of them make minimum wage, which in case you need a reminder is just $7.25 per hour in Louisiana and has been since 2009. We call essential workers heroes for continuing to work throughout this pandemic, yet, even when they work full time, we don’t pay them enough to cover their essential needs.

I am one of the overwhelming majority of Louisianans who want a meaningful increase to the minimum wage that will help workers support their families and enjoy a better quality of life. This year, instead of including a specific minimum wage bill in my package, I am supporting any and all efforts to raise the minimum wage. So my message to the Legislature is simple: pass a bill. Get it on my desk. I’ll sign it.

Three additional bills in my package are aimed at improving advocacy for those most vulnerable.

The first is establishing a statewide Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator within the Division of Administration. The ADA coordinator will provide educational and technical support for state and local agencies. My administration has made disability rights a cornerstone of our time in office, and I hope the legislature will join us in making sure every Louisianan knows they belong.  

Second, we will create an Office of Human Trafficking Prevention within the Office of the Governor. Ending human trafficking is an issue that both my wife Donna and I are very passionate about. And I want to take just a moment to thank you, Donna, for all the work you have done on this critical issue for our state.

We have certainly made progress when it comes to identifying trafficking cases and supporting survivors. But creating a designated office will allow us to place an even more concentrated effort on ending these horrific crimes that are tantamount to modern day slavery.

Third, we will be introducing legislation to create a Foster Youth Bill of Rights. It was written by and for young people who have gone through our foster care system. I am thrilled to be able to introduce you to some of them today. Antonica Frazier, Aliyah Zeien, Jarvis Spearman, and Htet Htet Rodgers, thank you for being here!

Your advocacy is going to help so many young people know that their voices and experiences are important.

Finally, I want to take a moment to discuss some other items that will be widely debated this session. This is a fiscal session, and with that comes a tendency to throw a ton of bills at the wall and see what sticks. But true tax reform doesn’t just mean tax change. Since 2016, we have made great strides in stabilizing Louisiana’s budget, and our efforts are paying off. In fact, earlier this year, Moody’s Investors Service revised Louisiana’s fiscal outlook from stable to positive. We have the opportunity to gain back the momentum we lost to the pandemic and natural disasters. But remember, in four years – two more fiscal sessions from now – the .45 percent of sales tax rolls off. We already have one of the lowest combined tax burdens in the country. So while we can and should make reforms, they must be revenue neutral. No one wants to go back to the fiscal mess that I inherited. And I won’t let that happen.

I am also extremely grateful for the $3 billion in assistance that we are receiving through the American Rescue Plan. I believe our first priority needs to be replenishing the unemployment trust fund to ensure that we can continue paying benefits and protecting businesses from tax increases. And then, because these are one time dollars, we should use funds on one-time expenses like infrastructure projects and paying down debt.

I also want to make sure that we are maximizing federal dollars to serve as many people as possible. That includes capitalizing on funding for high speed, affordable broadband for every single person in Louisiana.

As I have always said, my door is open. Let’s talk. Let’s make reforms. But let’s make sure they are real reforms, like the ones recommended by a taskforce made up of economists and tax professionals that the legislature itself created in HCR 11.

So in closing, as we enter the 2021 regular session and inch closer to ending the COVID pandemic, I am hopeful. Because the people of Louisiana are as resilient as ever.  

In 2020, we had many dark and cloudy days. To borrow a line from Louisiana’s state song, it felt like our sunshine had gone away.

But better days are here, and even better days are ahead. I was thinking about this recently as we celebrated Easter. It is a story that renews our hope and faith in brighter days to come. In the first letter of St. Paul to Thessalonians, Chapter 5:16-18 he says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.”

I know how hard it’s been to find ways to rejoice or give thanks during a pandemic and natural disasters, but it’s getting easier now.

A new day is dawning with every shot in every arm.

And while we are 10,241 rays of sunshine dimmer here in Louisiana, we are going to keep their memories shining by working hard to create a better state for all our people.

At the end of the day, it’s the Louisiana people who truly make our state bright.

So let’s work together. Let’s fight for the future we know is possible. Let’s get our sunshine back, Louisiana.

God bless the United States of America and God bless the great state of Louisiana. Thank you!