La. governor reflects on 2017; takes questions about state police audit, aide's sexual harassment allegations

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Marking nearly two years in office, the Louisiana governor struck an upbeat tone.

"Despite the challenges that continue to lie ahead, I remain extremely optimistic about the future of our great state," Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a press conference Wednesday.

He pointed to the dropping unemployment rate, new economic investment in the state, and improved state finances as reasons for his optimism. "For the first time in a decade, higher education was saved from cuts," Edwards said, calling it a "win" for students.

But 2017 also brought scandal to the governor's doorstep.

In November, his now former aide, Johnny Anderson, resigned amid sexual harassment allegations. This was not Anderson's first run-in with such accusations. In 2006, he faced similar allegations while serving as chairman of the Southern University Board of Supervisors, accusations Anderson denied. Still, Edwards defended Anderson's hiring, saying an investigation at the time did not prove the allegations.

"In my years of knowing Johnny, which go back to 2011, I never saw, heard anything directly or indirectly that suggested to me that there would be any problem of this type," he said.

Also in recent weeks, the former head of Louisiana State Police, Col. Mike Edmonson, came under fire. A report by the Legislative Auditor accused Edmonson of abusing his power and potentially breaking the law. While he called most of the audit's findings "very troubling," Edwards defended Edmonson on one mark: his use of the house on state police grounds.

"I told him I expected him to stay in the residence because that's the best place for him to be if he's going to command the state police," he said.

Edwards also expressed faith in his new state police superintendent, Kevin Reeves, saying he believes he will return professionalism to the agency. "I have 100 percent confidence in Colonel Reeves and his leadership abilities and the changes he's already made," Edwards said.

Edwards' next hurdle is a familiar one: the state budget. With a $1 billion shortfall projected for next year when temporary taxes fall off the book, the governor said he's hopeful lawmakers will reach a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff. "Sometimes the optimism comes not so much because you believe people will look at things differently than they have in the past, but because they're going to be just that much closer to the edge of the cliff and it creates a sense of urgency," he said.

RELATED: La. governor introduces tax plan to avoid $1 billion fiscal cliff

Edwards announced Wednesday he's giving lawmakers a deadline of January 19 to reach an agreement on what to do with the budget shortfall. Otherwise, he said he will not call a special session for February, forcing lawmakers to craft a budget with potentially $1 billion in cuts.

Edwards introduced his plan to avoid the fiscal cliff Monday. He reiterated that he will be "flexible" when negotiating with lawmakers.

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