If the new motto of Louisiana is "Let the Bad Times Roll," let it be said that they are rolling. When the 1986 legislature opened here Monday, the governor's address was delayed for five hours so that Edwin W. Edwards, impresario of the late, lamented good times, could spend the afternoon in a New Orleans courtroom fighting bribery and conspiracy charges.
The delay was somehow appropriate, for these days the entire state, not just the governor, seems to be on trial.
Four years ago, Louisiana had a $700 million surplus. Now, with the fall of oil and gas revenues, it is at least that far in the hole. The unemployment rate is above 13 percent, worst in the nation. The city of New Orleans is virtually bankrupt. Education and health-care programs are being threatened even though the state's illiteracy and teen-age pregnancy rates are among the worst in the country. Public confidence in state officials is at an all-time low, shaken not only by Edwards' troubles but also by recent revelations concerning widespread nepotism in the New Orleans judiciary.
"The foibles of our public officials were cute when we were rolling in dough," said state Rep. Gary Forster (R-New Orleans). "Nobody's laughing now."
Least of all Edwards. A far different governor addressed the legislature Monday night from the one who has seduced it, persuaded it and placated it with public works and patronage for all but four of the last 15 years.
Only a year ago, the third-term Democratic governor was called the dictator of a "banana republic" by state Rep. Kevin Reilly (D-Baton Rouge), who had been stripped of his appropriations chairmanship for daring to suggest budget cuts. Monday night, Edwards said he would oppose budget cutting -- preferring to raise revenues through casino gambling and a lottery -- but would not stop it. "I respect your power," he said.
Once indomitable, Edwards was humble and self-effacing. He began his speech by emitting a loud, mournful laugh. "Whatever has happened to any of you in the last 12 months," he said, "whatever disappointments and tribulations have come your way, I can tell you it sure is not as bad as what's happened to me. If sometime in the future you're feeling down and out, think about it for a while and you will say, 'Thank God I'm not the governor.' That should help brighten your day."
But Edwards, whose post-election motto was "Let the Good Times Roll," maintains that he should not be blamed for Louisiana's fiscal crisis: "I'm not at fault. The governor of Texas is not under indictment, and they have the same problems. Oklahoma, New Mexico, Alaska -- their governors are not under indictment, and they have the same problems. Good governors or bad governors, it makes no difference. It was the world situation that brought us to where we are today."
The legislature's mood is one of willful independence. Edwards seems to have lost much of his influence, even over longtime loyalists in his party. They do not blame him for the deficit, but they criticize what they see as his lack of leadership in resolving it.
"The public is demanding that we cut the budget before we try anything else," said Sen. Armand J. Brinkhaus (D-Lafayette/St. Landry), chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "If we just continue business as usual, the public won't buy it. We can look at gambling only after we've tried everything else."
Brinkhaus was among the leaders of a legislative committee that recently recommended balancing the budget by cutting about $250 million in programs and raising the rest through tuition increases, higher license-plate fees and elimination of the exemption of food from the state sales tax. The committee did not consider Edwards' gambling proposals.
"Edwin Edwards is one of the strongest leaders I've ever met. But on this issue, as Louisiana faces the biggest crisis in its history, his leadership is null and void," said Rep. Robert Adley (D-Bossier City). "What he's suggesting won't resolve the budget problems this year at all. It would take at least a year to get the gambling in place. That's just a total lack of leadership. It's wrong."
Rep. Charles Lancaster (R-Metairie) characterized Edwards' strategy as trying to avoid the heat that comes with cutting programs while hoping that the legislature turns to gambling as a last resort.
"He's exerting negative leadership," Lancaster said. "It's the only kind he has left. He doesn't have the power anymore because he doesn't have the money. He used to be able to bring guys into his office and give them roads and projects for their colleges and vocational schools. But there isn't any money for him to do that now."
The state ranks in the bottom five in the amount it taxes its citizens. But its $7 billion budget, covering 4 million people, is near the top in per capita spending, with royalties from oil and gas production accounting for 23 percent of the budget. Nonetheless, Louisiana ranks near the bottom in results: literacy, student scores, prenatal care, teen-age pregnancy.
"The problem is not that we haven't had enough money, it's that we haven't used it wisely," Adley said. "The way the government traditionally uses money in Louisiana is to placate different groups. Give them money for this or that, without trying to guarantee the results. You've got to figure that if money could make things right, we'd have been right a long time ago."
This year, some of the previously untouchable monuments of the populist era of Gov. Huey Long, such as charity hospitals that provide free health care at 10 locations around the state, are for the first time coming under budget scrutiny.
Edwards says cuts in the charity system and a proposed sales tax on food burden the poor disproportionately. Casino gambling, he said, would provide at least 72,000 jobs in a state where more than 250,000 people are out of work. As his legal and political troubles accumulate, Edwards is turning more often to populist themes, sounding increasingly like a latter-day Long. His 45-minute, extemporaneous speech Monday night, in the golden-hued House chamber of the skyscraper capitol building that Long built 50 years ago, had a powerful historical cadence to it. The villains were the rich and the intolerant.
"I read the Bible," Edwards said, as he defended the gambling proposal. "This finger has been on every word of the New Testament, at least one time. The word 'gambling' is nowhere to be found in it. What is specifically prohibited is adultery. You don't see people marching in the streets to make adultery against the law. I'm not prepared to join that movement, anyway. Gluttony is prohibited. You've got a TV commentator in New Orleans who looks like both of the Smith Brothers cough drops. You don't see the preachers campaigning against him.
"I don't want to live in a country where the state runs the church, but I don't want to live in a country where the churches run the state. The preachers are not always right." Edwards said the state faces a different morality problem: "There's immorality in sick children unable to get care. There's immorality in old people not getting the medical attention they deserve. There's immorality in a father having to come home for the 100th day in a row and tell his little children, 'I still don't have a job.' "
It was, scores of legislators said afterward, perhaps the best and most sincere speech of Edwards' career. But few thought that he would make any difference. "His rhetoric now rings from a different era," said one Democrat who still regards himself as Edwards' ally. "We're trying to deal with the uncertain future. He's trying to save the past."