UPDATE: This story is considerably more ridiculous than it seems. Click here for more.
Since lunchtime yesterday I’ve been trying to figure out what to write about newly-inaugurated Gov. John Bel Edwards’ speech to the LABI annual meeting, because for the most part what was significant about the speech was the awkward quality of the scene.
After all, Edwards built, in his eight years as a state representative, one of the worst voting records according to LABI’s legislative scorecard, in the entire House. And when that voting record earned him an endorsement of David Vitter by LABI’s four separate political action committees, his response was to lash out personally at LABI’s president Stephen Waguespack.
Not to mention that when Edwards wasn’t riding public apprehension about David Vitter’s past dalliances with hookers during the campaign, he was offering a laundry list of redistributive economic policies making a more or less implacable enemy of the business community who’ll be asked to fund them to their own detriment.
So when Edwards won, and was therefore the traditional invitee to speak at LABI’s annual meeting – an incoming, or newly re-elected, governor always speaks at the organization’s annual meeting – the situation was inevitably going to be awkward.
And it was. The joke heading into the speech was that this would be something akin to the scene in Blazing Saddles when Rock Ridge meets its new sheriff.
To Edwards’ credit, and LABI’s, the speech was not the disaster it could have been. He was politely received, with standing ovations at the beginning and end of his speech befitting the business community’s collective decision not to draw first blood with the new governor, and he reciprocated by not rehashing the laundry list of redistributive policies he outlined in his inaugural speech three days before. About the most contentious thing he discussed was the decision to expand Medicaid in Louisiana, which is a policy the Republican Party opposes greatly but isn’t a direct priority of the business community regardless of it not being a particular favorite of theirs.
What was perhaps most significant in the speech, though, was a segment of it where Edwards took the opportunity to boast about the benefits of his sharing a party and an ideological persuasion with President Obama, who came through Baton Rouge for a town hall meeting just two hours before. The Times-Picayune’s description of Edwards’ retelling of his meeting with Obama Wednesday night gives an indication of how that part of the speech at LABI sounded…
Still, Edwards said he isn’t hiding any potential relationship with the president. A few hours after Obama’s town hall, the governor touted his access to Obama in a speech to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry — a powerful and conservative business group that campaigned against Edwards during his campaign for governor.
“I asked him to work with me to help fix some of the problems we have here in Louisiana,” Edwards said during his speech to hundreds of Louisiana’s most influential businessmen and women. “I’m not one of those people who has a private conservation and goes out and … acts differently.”
Edwards is more likely to have the Obama’s ear than did Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was vocal in his criticism of the president. And Obama’s short visit to Baton Rouge may have already yielded some good things for the state.
Edwards said the president is seriously considering trying to put $100 million toward the widening of Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge. Edwards pointed out the traffic bottleneck to Obama when he and the president were riding to the hotel, he told the business group in his speech Thursday afternoon.
“So yes, I’m thankful the president came here,” Edwards said to much applause from the business community, who has been fighting for transportation projects and infrastructure improvements for several years.
The Baton Rouge Advocate’s coverage of the Edwards-Obama exchange had just a little more…
Edwards, who accompanied Obama from the airport, said he told the president it was the only place on the 2,460-mile highway interstate, which stretches from Santa Monica, California, to Jacksonville, Florida, with a single lane.
“He didn’t know that before, and had I not taken advantage of the opportunity, he wouldn’t have known it today,” Edwards told hundreds of businesspeople attending the annual luncheon for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
At his town hall meeting at McKinley Senior High School, the president recalled seeing the one lane coming off the I-10 bridge over the Mississippi River, which routinely chokes traffic and causes daily headaches for travelers through Baton Rouge.
“We may need to do something about it to relieve some traffic,” Obama said, adding that traffic shouldn’t be a partisan issue because traffic problems apply to everyone regardless of party.
Edwards delivered a request for federal help during the drive in from the airport. East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden also accompanied Obama on the drive.
Obama’s staff told Edwards Thursday morning that the administration is “seriously and favorably considering a request” for $100 million to make that improvement, the governor told LABI.
The money would come from the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which would spend $305 billion on highway and transit projects through 2020, he said.
And while this may have sounded good on the surface, as it happened it was far and away the most problematic aspect of the speech.
On December 2, this appeared on Congressman Garret Graves’ Facebook page…
The FAST Act passed earlier this year and was signed by the president, well in advance of his trip to Baton Rouge or his conversations with John Bel Edwards.
We discussed the implications of the FAST Act with our sources on Capitol Hill, and essentially its particulars are as Graves said.
Louisiana will get $100 million more in guaranteed annual federal dollars for road projects, but those funds are not some slush fund for John Bel Edwards to use as he sees fit; they will fund projects already in the pipeline for federal funding long before he took office.
Louisiana will also be better positioned, per the work of Graves and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, to secure competitive federal grant money for highway projects deemed essential to national security and economic growth – as in bridges over the Mississippi over which an enormous amount of freight is transited. But again, those projects are not selected by John Bel Edwards; they’re selected as part of a process initiated at the federal level through the primary input of the state’s congressional delegation.
These things are, as said above, already law and Obama has already signed the FAST Act. John Bel Edwards had nothing to do with them and John Bel Edwards showing Obama the one-lane stretch of I-10 at the I-110 split in downtown Baton Rouge makes zero difference in how soon improvements are made. Obama doesn’t personally approve or handle individual road projects; those are done in the federal Department of Transportation. And DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx has been to Baton Rouge on repeated occasions to see the one lane.
Again, this is already law and the funding for the improvements was already done.
Edwards went to LABI and took credit for something Garret Graves had accomplished. All Edwards did was to show Obama a problem the federal government was already committed to paying to solve.
Glomming on to an achievement is hardly something new in American politics. But given that Edwards was desperate for something to present to the state’s business leaders in Thursday’s speech they might find acceptable, overstating his role as a bringer of deliverables and implying that his affiliation with Obama was a reason for those deliverables and the promise of future prosperity comes off as a real failure.
It would have been better for Edwards to simply tell the truth – that he’d been elected governor as a Democrat, that he was going to be raising taxes, that the business community might be welcome to offer suggestions for how best to raise them and he’d be willing to listen, but that since they didn’t support him during the election it would be others who would primarily have their ear.
That might not have earned him the standing ovation at the end, but he might have a bit more respect from them once the truth came out about the FAST Act and the highway dollars.
UPDATE: And here’s a well-crafted response by Rep. Graves to the Obama-Edwards highway conversation:
The president is right. This issue is not partisan, this bottleneck needs to be fixed and it is taking way too long. This is why we put solutions in place last year by writing the new transportation law in a way that provides up to $1B/year in additional funding for Louisiana and prioritizes I-10, I-12 and other important traffic problems. We look forward to working with US Department of Transportation Secretary Foxx, the president and others to ensure they follow the law.