BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — If Gov. John Bel Edwards wanted validation for the priorities he's pushed since taking office three years ago, an annual survey of public opinion in Louisiana provided it, suggesting the governor's aligned with state residents on many of his core issues.
Medicaid expansion, a minimum wage hike, teacher pay raises and a rewrite of criminal justice laws proved popular in the Louisiana Survey, a public opinion poll conducted annually for 18 years by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University's mass communication school.
And those are all areas the Democratic governor has championed.
The numbers shouldn't be interpreted as an assurance that Edwards, running for a second term in the Oct. 12 election against two Republican challengers, is unbeatable at the ballot box.
But the survey is a reminder that the incumbent governor will be a formidable opponent for GOP contenders Ralph Abraham, a third-term congressman from northeast Louisiana, and Eddie Rispone, a Baton Rouge businessman making his first bid for elected office after years as a hefty political donor.
On the Medicaid expansion program, 76% of residents approved of Edwards' signature achievement. The governor expanded Louisiana's Medicaid program in 2016 to give government-financed health insurance coverage to thousands more nonelderly adults, mainly the working poor. More than 500,000 people have enrolled.
Republican lawmakers repeatedly hammer the expansion as wasteful, pointing to audits that show millions in estimated spending on people who don't appear to be eligible. But the program appears popular in their party as well. While Medicaid expansion was stronger with Democrats, the LSU poll data shows 57% of Republicans also had favorable opinions of the policy.
In another area, support for a rewrite of Louisiana's criminal sentencing laws during Edwards' tenure — which expanded probation and parole opportunities and reduced sentences, mainly for nonviolent offenders — grew from 61% last year to 70% in 2019.
The law changes passed in Louisiana won bipartisan legislative support, and President Donald Trump has advocated for similar adjustments, likely explaining the 14% increase in support this year among Louisiana's Republicans.
The issue has split Republican elected officials in the state, however, with U.S. John Kennedy, Attorney General Jeff Landry, and Abraham criticizing such law changes as threats to public safety. Edwards and other supporters say the overhaul cut Louisiana's spending on prisons and ended its tenure as the nation's highest incarcerator per capita.
Among debates in this year's legislative session, Edwards appears to have public opinion on his side for two of his main objectives, raising Louisiana's minimum wage and boosting teacher salaries. While both may be popular with the public, the teacher pay proposal is much more likely to pass the Legislature than a minimum wage hike.
The poll showed 88% of Louisiana residents support teacher pay raises. Edwards proposed a $1,000 raise for K-12 public school teachers and a $500 salary bump for school support staff, such as cafeteria workers. The proposal appears to have widespread support among lawmakers and is expected to win passage.
But while 81% of Louisianians (including nearly three-quarters of Republicans) said they support an increased minimum wage of $8.50 an hour, Republicans have helped defeat such measures for three years straight. Edwards' push to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour seems on track for the same fate this session.
The Louisiana Survey polled 917 residents aged 18 or older from Feb. 15 through March 7, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points.
Findings from the survey, released in six parts since April 2, weren't all good news for Edwards, particularly on taxes.
Nearly half of residents think Louisiana's personal income tax rates have increased, even though that's not true. The governor and lawmakers did raise sales taxes, and about half of Louisiana residents think that rate is too high, up from 32% in 2016.
Those aren't great numbers for Edwards, whose opponents want to keep taxes front and center with voters.
More broadly, only 47% of residents say Louisiana is heading in the right direction. That figure's up from 39% a year ago, but it's not a sign of strong confidence in government and its leaders.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte
Posted on Tue, April 23, 2019
by By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press