House committee assignments unveiled _lowres

Rep. Cameron Henry Jr., R-Metairie

Republican Rep. Cameron Henry was one of two New Orleans-area representatives named Thursday evening to lead the Louisiana Legislature’s powerful money committees that will decide how the state’s deficit-ridden budget will be balanced.

Henry, of Metairie, was expected to be named to the House Appropriations Committee. He had run for speaker, then helped Taylor Barras win. Henry was ejected from the panel in 2012 when he challenged then-Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budget plans.

As head of the Appropriations Committee, Henry’s name will go on the bill that authorizes the state’s annual spending.

The choice of Rep. Neil Abramson, of New Orleans, to lead the House Ways and Means Committee, which hears tax measures, was not embraced by his fellow Democrats, many of whom felt he had betrayed the party.

Speaker Barras, a Republican from New Iberia, released those two picks along with his selections for all the committee leaders, who decide what bills will be heard and when.

“This is an outstanding group of dedicated public servants who are ready and able to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing our state,” the House leader said in a prepared statement. “I have absolute confidence in their ability to lead their committee members in the kinds of discussions that will ensure that legislation is well-crafted and thoroughly vetted.”

The minority Democrats, however, were unhappy with the choices.

“We actually had a better deal with Jindal, go figure,” said House Minority Leader Gene Reynolds, D-Minden. Under Jindal, 40 percent of committee leaders were Democrats. Now, only about 25 percent are.

Only six out of the 24 members of the Appropriations Committee are Democrats, he said.

“Anything coming out of Appropriations is a rubber stamp for the Republicans,” Reynolds said late Thursday. “I think this bipartisan thing they were talking about has gone by the wayside.”

Sixty-one of the House’s 105 members are Republicans, and 42 are Democrats. Two have no party affiliation.

In the Senate, which has a larger portion of Republicans than the House, two Democrats — one from Acadiana and one from New Orleans — head the money committees.

The money panels are especially crucial this year because of Louisiana’s budget crisis.

State services face a shortfall of up to $750 million by June 30 and $1.9 billion for the financial year that begins on July 1.

A special session to grapple with budget issues is expected to begin on Feb. 14.

The regular session starts on March 14 and has to end by June 6.

Barras had to hurry because the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget and the Joint Capital Outlay Committee, made up of members of both chambers, meet Friday morning to handle budget issues necessary to continue funding operations.

The assignment for Abramson sparked anger among House Democrats. Reynolds said he and other Democratic leaders repeatedly had asked Barras not to name Abramson to the powerful committee.

Abramson initially ran for speaker against Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ choice of state Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans.

Abramson only got two votes — his and one other — and he then crossed party lines and backed the eventual winner — Barras.

The Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee later rebuked Abramson for his actions, and members of the panel claimed he cost his party a chance to capture the House’s top prize. Abramson has said Leger should have stepped aside when it was obvious he could not win, which he said could have paved the way for his own compromise candidacy to prevail.

On the education front, Lafayette Republican Rep. Nancy Landry was named to head the House Education Committee. House and Senate education committees will review any Common Core changes approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, was named chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Usually, speakers have several months to choose which members will serve on which committees. And, traditionally, they do so with considerable input from the governor.

But Barras joined the speaker’s race as a compromise candidate for a faction of the House Republicans who declined to back Henry. In less than 18 hours, he went from long-shot candidate to being elected to the top position in the House.

Using a color-coded spreadsheet — red for Republicans, blue for Democrats — Barras arranged the membership in the various committees in 17 days.

Henry said he worked with Barras to help make the selections, but the speaker also sought the advice of others. Henry said U.S. Sen. David Vitter, whom Edwards defeated in a bitter gubernatorial race, and U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, with whom Henry once worked, were not involved in the selection process.

“It was a big job, and at the end of the day, Speaker Barras made the decisions he thought best for the House and for the state,” Henry said.

Leger said prior to the release of the speaker’s list that he was concerned that too few Democrats had positions of influence.

“This process is always messy,” Leger said, adding that whatever the makeup of the House committees, the members are going to have to work together to get the budget balanced and to right the state’s fiscal structure.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter @MarkBallardCNB.

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