Edwards reaches out to business leaders, seeking compromise

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BATON ROUGE — Gov. John Bel Edwards struck a conciliatory tone Thursday with business leaders who backed his opponent in last year’s governor’s race, describing himself as a “willing partner” with them as he crafts ideas for lessening Louisiana’s financial woes.

In his first week in office, the new governor spoke at the annual meeting of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, while behind the scenes he’s pulling together a package of tax proposals that could hit companies with cuts to their favored tax break programs.

Edwards said he was committed to having a strong business climate in Louisiana.

“You’re not going to find someone who is unsympathetic, who is ignorant to what you’re trying to do,” the Democratic governor told the LABI luncheon. “You’re going to find a willing partner, willing to sit down and talk to you.”

But he also warned that those assembled may not like some ideas he suggests for a planned mid-February special legislative session aimed at stabilizing the state budget and closing an estimated $700 million gap this year and even larger $1.9 billion gap next year. The shortfalls threaten public health care programs and public colleges with deep cuts.

The governor said while he’ll seek cuts to state agencies, he also intends to look at shrinking tax break programs “that are more generous than we can afford.” Many of those tax credits, rebates and exemptions are doled out to various industries.

“I will tell you in advance, you’re not going to like everything that I propose. The fact of the matter is I don’t like some of the things I’m going to propose. The only thing I like worse is not doing them,” Edwards said.

He didn’t provide specifics, saying after the luncheon that he would start rolling out a “menu of options” next week for lawmakers to consider as the administration tries to build consensus ahead of the special session.

LABI, a powerful lobbying group, has been skeptical of Edwards’ financial plans and supported his Republican rival U.S. Sen. David Vitter in last year’s runoff, a rare endorsement for governor from the organization.

Earlier in the day, LABI President Stephen Waguespack said the organization wants to make sure that tactics for balancing the budget “don’t crater the private sector in the process.”

At the start of his speech, Edwards recapped his discussions with President Barack Obama, who visited a Baton Rouge high school earlier Thursday. The Democratic governor spoke with the president in a car ride Wednesday night.

The governor said he received assurances the Obama administration would help Louisiana with its Medicaid expansion plans. Edwards also made a pitch for a $100 million state request to help widen Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge at a chokepoint where the road shrinks to one lane, a portion of interstate the presidential motorcade traveled on from the airport to the hotel.

“I said, ‘This is the only place in the United States of America where there’s one travel lane on a major interstate.’ He didn’t know that before,” Edwards said to large applause, hitting on a traffic issue that is a widespread point of irritation in the city.

While Obama remains unpopular in Louisiana, the governor embraced the visit, saying it gave him the opportunity to talk about state needs.

“Yes, I’m thankful that the president came,” Edwards said.

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