As prepared for delivery:
Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the Legislature, My Fellow Louisianans:
I’d like to start by offering my prayers to the many people who’ve been impacted by the devastating floods occurring in every corner of our state. I’ve been from Shreveport to Bossier, to Monroe and from Bogalusa to Ponchatoula to Merryville to Evans and Vinton, and we are working around the clock to get assistance to those who need it. Donna and I are keeping everyone in our thoughts and prayers.
Yesterday, the President granted our request for a major disaster declaration – paving the way for some much-needed federal assistance in the aftermath of this severe weather. I want to reassure folks who were not in the initial declaration; we are working with FEMA to add new parishes every day. While our partnership between state and local government has been tremendously successful, this declaration is critical as we move forward in the recovery phase. I would encourage everyone to monitor the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness website – get a game plan [dot] org for updated information.
So – now we begin this new legislative session.
My first year in the House of Representatives I entered this chamber hopeful that, regardless of party, we were all here to invest in our state’s future, to make a difference for our people. I have begun my first year as governor with the same hope – except now it is an expectation.
As a legislator, that hope transformed into frustration – frustration over the unwillingness to compromise. Frustration over the unwillingness to set aside personal political agendas for the good of our state. I guess we had a government of the people and by the people, but we certainly didn’t have a government for the people. After eight years of service in this chamber, I decided to run for governor to make sure Louisiana gets back to working for the people, not political parties.
Exactly a month ago, as governor, I stood right here and asked you to work with me to solve the largest budget deficits in the history of our state. Much progress was made, but not enough. Both the process and the final result were lacking. Too many refused to either vote for new revenue or to identify budget cuts to close the gaps as we are required to do. Speaking of the process, we have not yet received the final enrolled bills for HB 122, HB 61, and HB 62 and the legislative fiscal office cannot give us information on the size of the current mid-year shortfall and the shortfall for next year.
As a result, we still face a budget deficit for the current year of more than $30 million. In fact, that number is likely to double as the fiscal analyses continue. For the next fiscal year, the state’s deficit will be well over $800 million. Unfortunately, the state’s fiscal office has been overwhelmed by the changes made to legislation in the final minutes and in preparation for this regular session, so we haven’t even begun to grasp the current state of our finances.
So, I am unable to speak today in specific numbers as I had hoped and as the people of our state expect. Suffice it to say, with a shortfall in the range of $800 million there will not be enough state general fund to adequately fund what we all know to be our critical priorities: higher education, healthcare, including private partners staying in our safety net hospitals, TOPS, and K-12 education to name a few.
That said, I do want to personally thank those members who worked with me to find common ground because there were many of you. But I remain committed to working with all of you, in good faith and without regard to party, to move our great state forward.
Our job is not to retreat when times get tough. Our job is to solve the tough problems.
So, as we begin this regular session, let’s get back on track. Let’s make the most of the time we have here to improve our state. The people of Louisiana are demanding that of us, and they certainly deserve it.
You’ve heard their voices right here at the capitol. I want to thank the people of Louisiana who fought throughout the special session - to the students who rallied on the steps of the Capitol, to the parents who testified before committees on behalf of their children - thank you for sharing your stories. Your testimony brought legislators to tears. Your rallies changed votes. You did make a difference. Your voices were heard, and will continue to be heard.
Our work is not done, and therefore, neither is yours. Keep speaking out. Keep fighting for the Louisiana our children deserve, and I will keep fighting with you.
Stabilizing the budget must remain our top priority, but setting Louisiana on a more prosperous trajectory also requires focusing on policies that will move our state and our people forward. I am committed to fixing the structural challenges facing the state’s budget and will work with the Legislature in proposing meaningful budget and tax reform solutions during the 2017 fiscal session and beyond. We must always look for more efficiencies and savings, and my administration will do this, including an ongoing an comprehensive review of contracts and programmatic changes undertaken by the Division of Administration.
Complacency is not an option when so many of our citizens are struggling to make ends meet.
We are quick to refute the punch lines that accompany last-in-the-nation rankings, but we are slow to address their root problems. That ends today. Actually, it ended on January 12th.
So, how are going to make the changes our state so desperately needs? We’ve begun that process, but our work during this session will further that mission.
With the support of people all across this great state and the health care community, we have expanded Medicaid so that the working poor have access to affordable health care. We join 31 other states and D.C. in giving our people in Louisiana the healthcare they need and they’re already paying for. Our federal tax dollars, until now, were being sent to other states to fund health care expansion for their citizens. Expansion starts July 1, and in the first year alone, we will save $100 million dollars.
First, coverage expansion will stimulate economic activity and create thousands of new jobs.
Second, coverage expansion will save state dollars. Louisiana currently spends $1 billion a year on care for the uninsured. With expansion, we’ll reduce the state’s share of the cost of Medicaid to never more than 10 percent. We will greatly reduce uncompensated care which will relieve a major financial burden on our hospitals. Without expansion, neighboring states have already seen some rural hospitals close.
Finally, Medicaid expansion will improve our workforce. In Louisiana today, there are nearly 30,000 restaurant employees and 15,000 construction workers who don’t have health insurance but will qualify under the expansion. This is not only good news for them and others; access to healthcare keeps people working and contributing to our economy.
While expanding coverage, we will also reform it. We can improve our Medicaid program and require personal responsibility for health by charging copays, providing premium assistance, requiring work referrals and promoting healthy behaviors. We save money, promote individual responsibility, and achieve better health outcomes.
Investing in the success of the state also requires investing in the success of Louisiana families because our state’s economic outlook is directly linked to the public’s economic outcomes.
And here’s the reality – too many families are struggling.
Forty percent of all our working families do not earn enough to cover basic monthly expenses. We’re talking about people who already have jobs and still live paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet.
Poverty does not discriminate. Poverty is not a Democrat problem or a Republican problem. Poverty is a Louisiana problem.
I promised throughout my campaign to fight for Louisiana’s working class.
Paying our workers a living wage is a basic principle in a land of opportunity; $7.25 per hour is simply not a living wage in 2016.
I am proposing a modest increase in the state’s minimum wage so we can give folks a fair shot. We can phase in this increase over the next two years with a minimum wage at $8 per hour beginning January 1, 2017 and $8.50 per hour beginning January 1, 2018.
14 states began this New Year with increased minimum wages. Let’s start Louisiana off on the right foot next year by putting our working families first.
Likewise, it’s time we ensure those opportunities are equally available to our daughters, as well as our sons.
Nearly a century has passed since women began voting alongside men, yet we still have women making less than men for the same work. The wage gap is greater in Louisiana than in any other state with women being paid 67 cents for every dollar paid to men. If you think it doesn’t make a difference, just ask the many women responsible for keeping the lights on and food on the table. Single mother households account for the majority of Louisiana families living in poverty and over half of our low income families.
Extending current provisions in law to cover men as well as women in local government and private sector jobs should be one of the easiest choices we make during this session. We must actually value families, and not just talk about family values.
And when we talk about a better future for Louisiana, we are also talking about a better future for our children.
We want all our children to go through life with more opportunities than challenges.
That starts with opportunities in the classroom.
My legislative agenda focuses on local control over education and smart reform measures.
First, we need to broaden the measures of student achievement used to evaluate public school teachers. Teachers are the heart of education, and their performance should not rely on how well they teach students to take a standardized test. We must also reduce the money and time spent on standardized testing in our schools.
Second, voucher programs must conform to their intended purpose, and that is to provide a choice to parents whose kids are trapped in failing schools. This is why I believe we should redesign voucher eligibility to only students in D or F schools. C schools, by definition, are not failing. This will allow us to better focus voucher resources on children in truly failing schools. We must do this without eroding resources from our traditional public schools which must continue to improve to educate our children.
Third, we must restore more local control over how children are educated and tax dollars are spent to local school boards that perform well under our accountability system. School districts with A or B grades must have the final say in whether a new charter school will open in the district. Parents and taxpayers should be able to hold their school board members accountable for these decisions, and Baton Rouge bureaucrats should not have primary responsibility over such decisions in these districts.
Also, we must ensure the effective delivery of services to children and families of this state. I will support the recommendations of my transition committee to restructure the Department of Children and Family Services to realign staff to their areas of expertise to serve our children and families in a more meaningful and impactful way.
I will also support measures to hold children accountable for violations of the law in age-appropriate settings by including 17 years olds in our juvenile justice system. Louisiana is one of only 9 states that exclude all 17 year olds from the juvenile justice system, even the most minor, nonviolent offenses.
Paving a path to prosperity also requires literally paving a path to a better state.
In Louisiana, we are responsible for more than 16,000 miles of roadway, 900 miles of interstate, and 13,000 bridges. Like every other state, we have airports, railroads, traffic signals and transit systems. But unlike other states, we have multimodal obligations in addition to operational duties. Our diverse landscape makes us responsible for locks and levees, dams and ferries. Our ports are important and support 1 in 5 Louisiana jobs.
It’s a lot to maintain, and if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that we’ve fallen behind on the job.
Our infrastructure is crumbling and the state has $12 billion of backlog projects to show for it. I will not neglect transportation in my administration.
We’re going to build better roads, better bridges, better transportation options, and we’re going to do it while also solving our budget problem.
We can accomplish this by first restoring the transportation trust fund so that those dollars are being used for their intended purposes. I have already removed the State police from that fund, freeing up more than $60 million and allowing us more flexibility.
As a result, DOTD is working to put an emphasis on improving the conditions of bridges, those owned by the state, and those that are owned by parishes through the off-system bridge program.
We will also double funding for the Port Priority Program from $19.7 million to $39 million per year. This is the first step in my administration’s long march toward a better, more competitive multimodal transportation system.
Additionally, I am supporting DOTD with a bill to make state dollars more flexible in terms of matching federal funds. Because we are committed to leading in this area, Louisiana will not be left at the station when it comes to passenger rail in this part of the country. Louisiana will be a leader in re-introducing passenger rail to the Gulf South.
With transportation dollars available for transportation needs, we can begin to prioritize projects that support economic development and ensure that communities have the flexibility to achieve goals.
For example, we have made significant progress re-initiating the I-49 Lafayette Connector through an approach that considers a community’s values and ideas in the design and ultimate use of public infrastructure.
Before I wrap up so we can get down to business, never forget the importance of the work we’ve been elected to do.
Since I took office, I have walked among the leveled remains of Sugar Hill RV Park in Convent, I’ve listened to Irvin Fleming recall how he and his wife Ruth took cover in their bathtub seconds before their home ripped apart around them in Assumption Parish, and over the last week, I’ve talked to families throughout the state who were rescued from rapidly rising waters that now fill their homes. I will never forget the moment I learned that because of those floods there is a family in Ouachita Parish waking up without their 6-year-old child. As a father, I can’t even begin to imagine what that must feel like.
But even in the midst of this destruction, the resilience of our people stands strongest. From every corner of this state, we cease to be individuals and unite together as neighbors to rebuild. In North Louisiana, a crew of National Guard officers answered the call to respond to these storms, saving six people - all from a helicopter. The mission was conducted one year to the day we lost service members in a helicopter crash off the coast of Florida. I want to personally thank the members of that crew: Officer Jack Mucha [Moo-Kuh], Officer Corey Sayer, Staff Sgt. Chad McCann, and Medic Sgt. Aaron Adam.
The effectiveness of our state government impacts these families. The work we do as public servants matters to them and millions of others.
That’s why it is so important that we work together.
This isn’t about Republicans, Democrats, or Independents – rural communities or urban areas.
This work is about Louisiana.
We have a reputation here in the Pelican State for daring to be different. We live in parishes, not counties. We spend our holidays throwing beads at people lining the street. We cook differently. We speak differently – we spell differently. There is no place in the country that compares to Louisiana.
So as we work together to solve our state’s problems, let’s continue marching to the beat of our own drum – not Washington, DC’s.
Let’s make our quality of life worthy of the way we celebrate life.
Let’s get back to Louisiana’s values.
Let’s get back to Louisiana’s people and really serve the state that we love.
God bless you all. God bless the great state of Louisiana.