- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Gov. John Bel Edwards embraced his support from organized labor, telling a construction trades union Wednesday that he won’t distance himself from the groups now that he’s leading the state and saying: “You have a friend in the governor’s office.”

The Democratic governor ran for office with backing from the AFL-CIO, teacher unions and other labor groups that have lost clout in recent years in the Republican-leaning, conservative state. Edwards said he’s proud of his union ties.

“I remain firmly on the side of working men and women and making sure that they have the opportunity to be treated with respect, that they get a decent wage, that they get decent benefits and that they have safe working conditions. Not asking for too much,” he told the Louisiana State Building Construction Trades Council meeting.

Edwards said as he meets with business leaders as governor, he urges them to give unionized workers the ability to compete for the company’s jobs. He said he doesn’t ask for special treatment but wants to make sure businesses don’t refuse to consider union workers.

“There is a new day in Louisiana. I am partnering with you,” the governor said.

His comments echoed a theme he struck Tuesday at a town hall-style meeting organized by the Louisiana Association of Educators, an education union, about not abandoning the relationships that helped get him elected.

To the construction group, Edwards outlined the state’s deep budget problems. Without directly talking of his tax increase proposals, the governor called for “shared sacrifice by everybody, and then we can turn the corner to shared prosperity.”

He is planning to call a special legislative session to begin Feb. 14 to work on closing a budget gap estimated to top $700 million in the fiscal year that ends June 30 and to start crafting plans for addressing a shortfall estimated to be near $2 billion next year. Edwards is asking lawmakers to consider raising a wide array of taxes to fill the budget holes.

In his speech, Edwards also defended his decision to keep food stamp recipients from having work requirements, and he urged people to call lawmakers and push for Medicaid expansion.

Republicans have criticized Edwards’ decision to waive the work requirements for thousands of food stamp recipients, saying the assistance should only be a short-term safety net. But the governor said Louisiana has lost thousands of jobs from the slump in oil prices and he “wasn’t going to turn my back on our unemployed brothers and sisters.”

Edwards said that for 19 years, including during former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s two terms in office, Louisiana has had a waiver of a requirement that childless adults aged 18 to 49 work 20 hours per week or be enrolled in a job training program to receive the food aid.

Jindal tried to let the waiver expire as he exited office, but Edwards got federal approval to keep it in place.

On Medicaid expansion, Edwards said some lawmakers question giving government-funded health insurance to the working poor as allowed under President Barack Obama’s health overhaul. He said he’s “trying to persuade them it’s the right thing to do.”

Edwards has started the process for the expansion, aiming to have thousands more people eligible to receive services on July 1. But he’ll need legislative approval for certain budget changes tied to the plans.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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