Lawmaker advances run for governor

Bel Edwards
Bel Edwards

State Rep. John Bel Edwards gave students at Southern University a peek at his gubernatorial campaign strategy Wednesday, and Gov. Bobby Jindal looms large in it.

Edwards, D-Amite, criticized the voucher program that Jindal expanded to send thousands of children in public schools to private or parochial schools. He picked apart the governor’s state spending plan.

He accused the governor of packing his suitcase instead of rolling up his shirt sleeves and participating in the recent legislative session.

“The governor wasn’t engaged,” Edwards said.

Left unsaid is that Jindal’s name will not be on the 2015 gubernatorial ballot.

Now in his second term, Jindal cannot seek a third consecutive four years as governor.

“Everybody wants to know what you would do different,” Edwards said afterward, explaining why he focused on Jindal.

Edwards jumped into the 2015 governor’s race early and started raising money.

On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and state Treasurer John Kennedy are eyeing the race. Political insiders consider Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and former Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, to be possible candidates.

At Southern, Edwards kicked off the university’s College of Social Behavioral Sciences “Speaker Series on the State of Louisiana.”

The lobby at Higgins Hall initially was empty at the appointed time for the event. The few students there double-checked their watches.

Then, waves of students flooded the lobby.

Edwards got students’ attention when he made the gaffe of promising to help them do better “here at Southeastern.”

Southeastern Louisiana University is in Edwards’ district. A Southern official quickly alerted Edwards to the mistake.

In the audience, state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, urged students to forgive and forget. “He’s from Hammond. Give him a break,” he said.

Edwards recovered and raced through a number of issues, including higher education funding, changes to the state’s charity hospitals, the state voucher program, funding for disabled children, Common Core, LSU’s struggles and Medicaid expansion. He told students they paid 60 percent more in tuition and fees than they would have five years ago.

“Both you and the state are equal beneficiaries when you get a degree and walk across stage,” he said, portraying the financial burden as falling too heavily on students.

Edwards warned that LSU could soon no longer be one of the top 100 universities in the country. At Southern, he said, the struggle is how to pay the light bill.

He said the state is not stepping up, choosing to spend money on a practice facility for an NBA team instead of providing funds that parents need to care for their disabled children.

He said politicians need to stop pretending that they are funding the state’s priorities. He said the “conservative, so-called fiscally prudent” Jindal is creating real structural problems in the state operating budget.

One solution, Edwards said, is for the state to collect the money that is owed to it.

Collecting just a fraction of the unpaid bills would fix a number of problems, he said.

Joni M. Clement, a graduate student working on a master’s degree in criminal justice, told Edwards that her biggest worry is seeing a dentist while not employed and lacking insurance. She suggested something could be set up on campuses to ensure students receive health care.

Edwards told her that it will be hard to deliver new services given the state’s budget constraints.