Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards Friday blasted House Speaker Taylor Barras’ decisions on who will lead and serve on House committees.
Edwards said Democrats are under-represented in the mix of committee leaders, the rosters are akin to partisan, Washington, D.C.-style politics and the makeup of the committees is “not consistent” with what Barras told him beforehand.
“I am disappointed by it,” the governor said.
Edwards made his comments during the question-and-answer portion of a news conference to announce Cabinet and other appointments.
Barras, a New Iberia Republican, said he doesn’t feel he misled Edwards and that the selections didn’t reflect a political agenda.
“I didn’t really have the time for that,” Barras said Friday. “I told him that I would be as fair, as equitable and try to blend it best we could.”
Barras won the House’s top spot over Edwards’ candidate for the job, state Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, and Metairie Republican Cameron Henry.
Sixty-one of the House’s 105 members are Republicans and 42 are Democrats. Two have no party affiliation.
Leger eventually was elected to the second leadership spot. Henry was named by Barras to lead the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Barras’ naming of state Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, to lead the House Ways and Means Committee is especially rankling some Democrats after Abramson crossed party lines and backed Barras’ bid for speaker.
Baton Rouge Democratic Rep. Ted James, who was said to be in the running for the Ways and Means Committee chairmanship, pointed out that, with the exception of Barras, the other top three leaders in the House — Leger, Henry and Abramson — live within 5 miles of one another in the New Orleans area. Baton Rouge-area legislators were frozen out of committee chairmanships.
Rep. Joseph Bouie, the newly elected chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said his group was “shocked” by the appointments. Members of the caucus lost half of the six seats it had held on the Appropriations Committee. Of the three members who remain on the committee, two were elected by the membership and only one was appointed by Barras.
“If that’s an indication of how those very critical issues will be addressed, I hope that’s not an indication of what will come,” Bouie said.
Bouie noted that whatever the current House leadership hopes to accomplish will still have to make it past Edwards, which could open up the possibility for leverage or negotiation. Beyond that, he said the caucus would have to look at how to respond to obstruction.
The election for speaker was settled on the same day that Edwards took the oath of office and was a setback because Louisiana lawmakers generally defer to the governor on leadership selections.
Edwards, a former House member for nearly eight years, also said he learned who would serve on House committees Thursday evening, which is about when reporters were notified.
One of the speaker’s top signs of authority is the ability to name committees.
Those who lead the panels have a huge influence over which bills are heard and when.
“I tend to wish we didn’t have party labels behind our names,” Barras said. “But it’s a political environment, I understand that.”
Barras said his goal is to ensure that issues get a fair and comprehensive review in committee. The way to do that is to ensure that the members are engaged and excited about their work, he said.
He asked the 105 representatives to list their committee preferences and why. He interviewed about 80 of the members, then tried to match wants, abilities, region and party to the available positions.
“It’s impossible to match everything perfectly,” Barras said. “We could have just placed folks where we needed, but that wouldn’t have helped us achieve the goal. It sounds simple — I thought so before I had to do it — but it’s really a huge puzzle.”
Barras said he spoke with former speakers and was told that he was making committee selections in a different way and much faster than previously had been done. He said he did not get advice from U.S. Sen. David Vitter and U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise but did talk with Henry and Leger, who both ran for the speakership.
The governor’s comments may be a sign of tensions just ahead of a special session expected to start on Feb. 14.
The chief topic is how to tackle Louisiana’s budget crisis, including a shortfall of at least $750 million by June 30 and $1.9 billion or more for the financial year that begins on July 1.
Barras’ selection of state Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, to lead the House Education Committee also sparked criticism from Louisiana’s two teachers unions.
In a prepared statement, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators — both Edwards allies — said Landry is a “vocal advocate of the corporate model of education reform.”
“Rep. Landry has often been one of the most ideologically driven members of the House Education Committee,” LFT President Steve Monaghan said.
LAE President Debbie Meaux said public education divisions are unfortunate but her group is “on board. We just need Rep. Landry to work with us.”
Landry, who often backs bills to make major changes in public schools opposed by the LFT and LAE, said she plans to work with all stakeholders to improve public education.
“I am a product of a Louisiana public education and the mother of two sons who both graduated from public schools here,” she said. “As a result of my personal experiences, I am committed to reforms that improve parental choice and focus on the needs of school children.”
Jeff Adelson, of The New Orleans Advocate, contributed to this report. Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.