BATON ROUGE — Saying he won’t be a “business-as-usual” leader, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards took his oath of office Monday, promising to stabilize the budget and end cycles of financial crises that threaten public health services and colleges.
As he placed his hand on the family Bible for the swearing-in ceremony, Edwards became the only Democratic governor in the Deep South after an improbable victory.
He follows term-limited Republican Bobby Jindal, inheriting a budget mess that will require him to work with a majority GOP Legislature. Edwards pledged bipartisanship in his approach, which he said needed to end Louisiana’s use of stopgap, short-term financial maneuvers that create new budget troubles annually.
“We can no longer afford to lurch from year to year, cobbling together temporary fixes and expecting to realize permanent sustainability. If we don’t fix the structural budget deficit, we can’t fix any of our other problems,” the new governor said at the inaugural ceremony held on the steps of the Louisiana Capitol.
The Edwards administration estimates Louisiana faces a shortfall of up to $750 million in the state’s $25 billion budget for the remaining six months of the current fiscal year and a gap more than twice that amount for next year.
While Edwards talked of working across party lines, however, the state House rejected his Democratic pick for speaker, instead choosing Republican Taylor Barras and breaking with a long-held tradition of voting with the governor on legislative leadership.
Edwards also outlined a decidedly Democratic agenda that seemed likely to face resistance from a Legislature with Republican majorities in each chamber.
He said he will ask lawmakers to increase the minimum wage, pass a new equal pay law and work to make college more affordable, to combat poverty in Louisiana. And he said he’ll start the process for expanding Medicaid on Tuesday, as allowed under the federal health law.
“Your tax dollars should not be going to one of the other 30 states that have expanded Medicaid when we are one of the states that expansion will help the most,” he said, a line that received thunderous applause from supporters.
But the governor called addressing the financial mess his top priority, saying he’ll seek to make budget cuts and “rework the failed system of tax incentives, credits and rebates, which too often bleed the state’s revenue and leave little to show for the spending.”
Edwards provided no specifics about which tax break programs he’d seek to scale back. He intends to call a mid-February special session aimed at closing the budget holes and making the tax changes.
Six other statewide elected officials also were sworn into office Monday.
Four are returning for another term: Secretary of State Tom Schedler, Treasurer John Kennedy, Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain and Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon.
Two are newly-elected: Former Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser took office as lieutenant governor, and former congressman Jeff Landry as attorney general.
The 144-member Louisiana Legislature also was seated earlier in the day.
Prayers, music and pageantry were part of the inauguration ceremony, themed “Louisiana First.” Edwards was heralded with a 19-round cannon salute and an F-15 flyover. LSU play-by-play announcer Jim Hawthorne served as master of ceremonies.
Four of Edwards’ predecessors were on hand: Jindal and former Govs. Edwin Edwards, Buddy Roemer and Kathleen Blanco. Edwin Edwards and John Bel Edwards are not related.
Edwards, 49, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, is the first Democrat to win a statewide elected office in Louisiana since 2008, after defeating one-time powerhouse U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican who entered the race as the front-runner.
A little-known member of the state House from rural Tangipahoa Parish, Edwards’ chance of a win was deemed slim when he announced his campaign plans more than two years ago, not with a formal kick-off event but in response to a question on a radio talk show.
He built a campaign operation that mainly relied on family and close friends, as political prognosticators and those within his own party initially gave him little chance of success.
With anti-abortion and pro-gun stances and a military resume, Edwards positioned himself as a moderate, capitalized on voters’ unease with Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal and built a campaign on personal integrity.
Edwards opened Inauguration Day with Mass at a Catholic cathedral. A black-tie ball was set for Monday night at a Baton Rouge film studio.