House meets 060217

The Louisiana House of Representatives during its meeting on Friday, June 2, 2017.

Advocate Photo by Mark Ballard

In approving the Senate’s version of the budget last week, a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats in the Louisiana House dealt the chamber’s conservative leadership its first major defeat since it took power 18 months ago.

A crucial vote Wednesday broke the budget impasse, but that doesn’t mean the conservatives have lost control of the House, Speaker Taylor Barras and the Republican moderates who forged the coalition to defeat him agree.

Still, the vote did send a warning shot to Barras, R-New Iberia, and his conservative lieutenants that they likely face more setbacks if they don’t address the concerns of moderates who believe state government has to stop cutting spending for public colleges and universities and who are more open to raising revenue to solve the state’s ongoing budget problems.

Wednesday’s events played out after Barras endured sharp criticism for not allowing the House to vote on the Senate’s version of the budget June 8, the final day of the regular session. Failure to reach agreement triggered the special session and prompted speculation that House members might try to unseat Barras. That didn't happen, but the frustration was palpable.

“Many of us are getting tired of just a particular segment of the Republican Party running this chamber,” state Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston, said in an interview on the last day of the regular session.

Shadoin was one of 10 Republicans who on Wednesday of the special session broke ranks with the Republican leadership on the initial vote for the Senate’s version of the budget, which would appropriate 100 percent of the available anticipated money for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. That vote, on an amendment offered by state Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, passed with the bare minimum required — 53 to 50 — as the 10 Republicans joined with all 41 Democrats and two of the three political independents. Conservatives wanted to spend $100 million less.

An hour or so later, the coalition produced a slightly bigger majority — 56-46 — to approve the final version of the budget, which authorized spending all of the anticipated available money but also directed state agencies to withhold $60 million in spending to create a reserve fund in case the state collects less revenue than expected. This has happened repeatedly in recent years and forced cuts in the middle of the fiscal year.

On that vote, 14 Republicans joined with 40 Democrats and two independents to approve the budget, House Bill 1.

Gov. John Bel Edwards endorsed the bill while conservatives vented their anger on social media, hurling a favorite insult at moderates, calling them “RINOs” — Republicans In Name Only.

Republicans hold a majority in both the House and the Senate, but Edwards has a working partnership with Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and his team.

The Senate gave its final approval for the budget Friday. 

Inside the State Capitol after that initial vote to accept the Senate version, the decision by two lawmakers to break ranks with the House leadership caught the attention of insiders.

One of them was state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, who handled HB1 on the House floor in the absence of state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie. Henry, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, had flown to Washington after the shooting of his close friend, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise.

In an interview, Foil said he favored spending less money.

“But I felt like $60 million hold-back was close enough to the goal of protecting ourselves from midyear budget cuts,” Foil said. “It also fully funds TOPS and other good things.”

And state Rep. Neil Abramson, of New Orleans, is often the lone Democrat who votes with the Republican leadership but not on Wednesday. In an email, Abramson said he, too, hopes the $60 million will provide a cushion, if needed, while at the same time the extra spending is needed “for critical services.”

Barras voted with 39 Republican colleagues Wednesday against the Senate’s version of HB1. It’s highly unusual for the speaker to lose such a high-profile vote. In fact, some longtime observers of the Legislature said they thought Barras should have voted for the bill once he knew that a majority favored it, to be on the winning side.

In an interview the next day, Barras said he could not accept spending all of the available funds.

He added that he doesn’t think he has lost a governing majority in the 105-member House, which includes 61 Republicans.

“The majority of the caucus is still quite conservative,” Barras said. “You’ll see that as we go through the tough votes ahead.”

State Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, an influential moderate, said he thought Wednesday’s vote reflected a desire by House members to approve a bill that would pass muster with the Senate and Edwards.

“I do not believe in any way that the majority leadership has lost control of the House,” Broadwater said. “It means we had a difference of opinion on that specific issue. We will come back for a new special session. It will be a new day. It will be a new debate. On the next issue that pops up, I may very well be in lock step with the majority leadership.”

State Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, another influential moderate, agreed with Broadwater that Barras retains his control.

But, he said, Wednesday’s votes showed “you don’t have to follow some blind ideology. I think you’ll see more and more people come to the middle and try to solve real issues.”

As legislators and Edwards began their four-year terms in January 2016, Barras was elected speaker on a 56-49 vote over Leger, a surprise outcome because the House in recent memory had not elected a speaker not favored by the governor. House Republicans said the vote showed them asserting their independence from the governor.

The Wednesday vote, Shadoin said, showed the House is capable of being independent of the speaker, too.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.