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The Writing on the Wall

Lingering tensions prompt one House Republican to give up committee chairmanship

Governor John Bel Edwards paid homage to the words inscribed on the Louisiana Capitol’s cornerstone, as he concluded his opening address to the 8th legislative session since he took office in January 2016.

“There is a quote etched into one of the cornerstones of this building that says, ‘We live for those we love.’ Every single one of us is here today because we love this state. And that love is what drives us to come back, session after session, year after year, and work toward solutions for the problems we face. Together we can leave behind an even greater Louisiana – ‘for those we love’.”

But those harmonious words contrasted with many of the governor’s subtle (and some not-so-subtle) advisories that he has had enough of gridlock, and the rhetoric used to justify such inaction.

He began by saying that while extremely disappointed in the just-ended special session, he applauds those who stood up to “urge fellow legislators to put the people we serve ahead of the distracting political games.”

Yet the governor indulged in a bit of political gamesmanship himself, lobbing a few zingers toward Attorney General Jeff Landry, who was in attendance.

“Medicaid expansion is saving lives,” Edwards stated, pointing to the opioid crisis, in particular.

“Through expansion, nearly 16,000 people have received inpatient or outpatient treatment for substance abuse. That’s 16,000 fewer families who will have to suffer the heartbreak of losing a loved one to addiction.

“We reduced the number of opioid prescriptions last year by 15 percent. And for Medicaid patients, there has been a 40 percent decrease in the amount of opioids prescribed since the first month of expansion in July of 2016.”

Landry has been insistent that Medicaid expansion has exacerbated the opioid crisis, claiming prescriptions for the addictive drugs have “doubled” since expansion began. Just last month, in an interview with The Advocate’ s Elizabeth Crisp, he stated, “A Medicaid card to a drug pusher is like a credit card. It costs them nothing, then on the street it’s 100 percent profit.”

The governor also touted the success of criminal justice reforms the Legislature passed last spring – a direct swat at joint claims made by Landry and U.S. Senator John Kennedy that “the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Act has been a disaster.”

“I realize there are some politicians peddling fear and scare tactics,” the governor said. “But very soon we will be able to say that we no longer lead the nation in imprisonment, and we have already exceeded our expected savings goal for the first year. We did that by working together.”

Edwards elucidated his agenda for the session: cutting red tape and regulations for small business, easing some of the 2012 restrictions against granting teachers tenure, developing a statewide plan to combat poverty – including passage of equal pay and minimum wage laws – and improving awareness and procedures regarding sexual harassment.

(Note: Secretary of State Tom Schedler, named as defendant in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed 3 weeks ago, was the only statewide elected official not in attendance at the session opener.)

And, of course, there’s the budget, and the problem of the fiscal cliff. Returning to that problem, which lawmakers failed to address in the special session that ended a week ago, Gov. Edwards told legislators about a senior from Dutchtown High School – an Eagle Scout, with a 33 on the ACT – who is now leaning toward attending Alabama instead of LSU, due to the uncertainty of TOPS.

“Losing to Alabama in the classroom should feel just as painful as losing to them on the football field,” the governor remarked. “Remember – when a special session goes by without any action, you aren’t failing me. You’re failing that kid from Dutchtown and the thousands of others like him around the state.”

Edwards then directly challenged those who insist “that the fiscal cliff could be solved by simply making spending cuts.”

“I think what many of you will find is that it is much harder than it seems because when you cut funding you cut a service that someone in this state relies on,” the governor said.

Looking pointedly at Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry, GOP caucus leader Lance Harris, and then Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport), the governor added, “If that’s what you truly believe, now is your opportunity. To those that say we can cut our way out of this, it’s your time to step up to the plate and make the specific cuts that you insist can be made.”

At the conclusion of the speech, Senator Francis Thompson called out, “Play ball!”

But throughout the Capitol, residual tension from the combative special session manifested in a variety of ways: from the Speaker’s, “Oh, Jesus!” exclamation upon being told there was a problem with the House microphones, to the Senate holding committee meetings to hear bills immediately – obviously, reaction to their House-forced two-week-long inaction during the special session.

And in the House, there was a resignation announcement: Rep. Kenny Havard (R-Jackson) is stepping down as chairman of the House Transportation committee.

“Every time I walk up to this building, I feel the weight of it on our shoulders,” Havard said, addressing the full House. “It is our responsibility to make this state a better place. It’s not the time to run from our responsibility to govern. It is not the time for bandaids. For families waiting on NOW waivers, it really is a matter of life and death. This is our time to put people above politics and party.

“You know, my dad always used the example of ‘If everybody jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?’ He told me, ‘Never join a gang.’ But we come here and we square off as Republicans and Democrats – and citizens get caught in the crossfire.

“As a chairman, I’m supposed to espouse an ideology. I’m expected to support the Speaker 100-percent. I can’t do that. Today is the day I want to get back to doing the people’s work and vote my conscience.

“We come here to plant seeds for the future. Today’s the day I ask you to stand with me — together – and pull up all the weeds. Let’s make sure they never take over our garden again.”

Is Havard’s resignation the first letter of other writing on the wall? And will it say to the Speaker – as was said to King Belshazzar in the biblical book of Daniel – “Thou art weighed in the balances, and found wanting?”

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