Abortion, raises and death penalty top of Edwards’ agenda

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – In Louisiana, teacher pay raises, added exceptions to the state’s near-total abortion ban and abolishing the death penalty are among items on Gov. John Bel Edwards’ wish list this legislative session.

Unable to run for re-election in October because of consecutive-term limits, the Democrat delivered his final State of the State address to lawmakers Monday, kicking off Louisiana’s 2023 regular legislative session. Over the next two-months, the Republican-dominated Legislature will debate the governor’s proposed $45 billion spending plan as well as bills surrounding hot-button issues that have gripped statehouses across the country this year.

Among Edwards’ requests is adding rape and incest exceptions to the state’s near-total abortion ban. Following the downfall of Roe v. Wade, Louisiana enacted one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country last year. The only exceptions to the ban are in cases where there is a substantial risk of death or impairment to the patient and for “medically futile” pregnancies – those in which the fetus has a fatal abnormality.

“I simply do not know how we, as a state, can tell a young girl or any victim of rape or incest that she must be forced by law to carry her rapist’s baby to term, regardless of the impact on her own physical or mental health, the wishes of her parents, or the medical judgment of her physician,” Edwards said.

Another focus of Edwards’ is raising Louisiana’s minimum wage, which currently aligns with the federal rate of $7.25 an hour. Edwards called the lack of a minimum wage increase, for which there have been failed attempts in recent years, “embarrassing and, frankly, immoral.”

While multiple pay bumps will be up for debate this session – including a bill that proposes increasing legislators’ salaries from $16,800 to $60,000 – Edwards is asking lawmakers to give teachers a $3,000 pay raise. The increase would help get public educators in Louisiana to the Southern average in teacher salaries.

“We have a shortage of teachers, not enough students are enrolled in colleges of education, and we are in a fierce competition with neighboring states to keep the teachers we have,” Edwards said.

While Edwards has advocated for pay raises and minimum wage increases in the past, there is one bill that he is speaking in support of for the first time since taking office in 2016 – abolishing the death penalty. The governor said that penalty doesn’t deter crime, isn’t necessary for public safety and is “inconsistent with Louisiana’s pro-life values, as it quite literally promotes a culture of death.” Lawmakers have pre-filed multiple bills related to criminal sentencing this session, including increasing the punishment for simple burglary and distributing fentanyl.

One topic the governor did not address during his speech are LGBTQ-related bills, which are likely to draw tense debate this session – including bills that aim to deny gender-affirming care to juveniles, restrict “sexually explicit” books, ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and a piece of legislation that is similar to Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law.

While some of the most anticipated bills this session align with Republican trends seen in statehouses across country, one main issue of focus that disproportionately affects Louisiana – and Florida – is the ongoing insurance crisis. Following a series of devastating hurricanes in 2020 and 2021, insurers went insolvent or fled the state in droves as claims piled up. Thousands of residents were forced to turn to the state-run insurer of last resort, where the average annual property premium is $4,400. Nationally, the average premium is $1,545.

During a special session in February, lawmakers allocated $45 million to an incentive program designed to entice more insurers to the state. This session, the state’s insurance commissioner is asking for an additional $20 million for that fund. Lawmakers have filed proposals to set timelines for insurers to receive a claim, begin adjusting it and requesting specific information they need from policyholders to substantiate losses. Another bill would fully implement the Louisiana Fortify Homes Program, which would provide direct incentives to homeowners to hurricane-proof their roofs.

Edwards says he will support legislation that aims to lower insurance rates and make the claims process “easier, more transparent, and fairer for everyone.”

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