NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Fresh off a strong victory in the Louisiana governor's race, Democrat John Bel Edwards began to work Sunday on his plans for the transition into his new office and an upcoming term in which he'll have to grapple with a hefty state financial crisis.
After a brutal, attack-heavy competition to win the office, Edwards will get little in the way of a honeymoon as he readies to follow term-limited Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal into office.
He'll be expected to enter the governor's mansion in mid-January with a roadmap for closing a looming $1 billion budget shortfall and correcting widespread financial woes, while working with a Republican-led Legislature that may not see eye-to-eye with his politics.
The governor-elect announced his transition leaders and his pick for chief of staff the day after a decisive, 12 percentage-point win over Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter. The one-time favorite for the job, Vitter saw his campaign collapse in an embarrassing rebuke when the race became a referendum on his character, including a years-old prostitution scandal.
Helming the transition and chosen as the new administration's chief of staff was Ben Nevers, a term-limited state senator from rural Washington Parish who ran a pro-Edwards PAC. A six-member transition team was named and will set up shop on LSU's campus.
Edwards repeated his campaign pledge to govern with a moderate and bipartisan approach. He described himself as committed "to materially change the direction of our state, to move in a new and better direction, to be the governor of all the people whether or not they voted for me."
"Our approach to governance is going to be much different than it has been under Gov. Jindal. We're going to be very inclusive. We will be very moderate. And we're going to govern from the perspective of being Louisianians first," he said.
Those campaign promises will be tested quickly as Republicans wait to see if he builds a cabinet and leadership team that includes members of the GOP.
"I would hope we would all be able to put donkeys and elephants aside to get the state back on the right track as regards to fiscal matters," said Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who supported Vitter for governor and is vying to be the next House speaker.
Louisiana is awash in red ink. The state's Medicaid program for the poor, elderly and disabled is projected to be short millions needed to continue all its services this year. Next year's budget is estimated to have a $1 billion gap. And state leaders are considering a short-term bridge loan to keep money flowing to construction projects because of concerns about how investors will react to attempts to borrow money amid all the financial troubles.
As he campaigned, Edwards said he wanted to unlock budget protections that keep some areas of the budget shielded from cuts, expand the state's Medicaid program to help cover some health care costs and scale back tax break programs.
He said he will call a February special legislative session after taking office Jan. 11 to deal with short-term budget gaps and to make long-term changes to Louisiana's tax structure and budgeting approach.
To accomplish such sweeping adjustments, he'll need to rally support from Republican state lawmakers who have majorities in both the House and Senate.
Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston, supported Edwards in the governor's race and said he hopes his colleagues will give the Democrat a chance, rather than set up Washington-style roadblocks.
"I don't plan on being a part of partisan politics," Shadoin said Sunday. "Sometimes he and I are going to disagree on what the best ideas are, but I think his heart is in the right place."
It remains unclear whether some GOP leaders will try to undermine the new governor.
"There are some that I think are so loyal to what they think a Republican should be that they might not be able to leave that behind. And if that's case, then I can see some refusing to talk or compromise," Shadoin said. "I just hope that that's not going to be the majority of either party."
Henry said lawmakers will need to find areas of compromise because voters don't want to see gridlock at the Louisiana Capitol.
"We definitely don't want Baton Rouge to become Washington where Republicans try to kill anything the Democrats propose and the Democrats try to kill anything the Republicans propose. That's why people hate Washington," he said.
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