Political Horizons: Barras tries to cool overheated temperature in state House _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, speaks with legislators on the floor of the Louisiana House of Representatives.

A coup was in the air when a handful of Republican representatives marched into House Speaker Taylor Barras’ office on March 14, the beginning of the regular session of the Louisiana Legislature.

Four days earlier, the special session aimed at filling a deficit of more than $2 billion had ended with members bickering to the brink — passing $800 million in new taxes for next year in the last 97 seconds.

This was the same Republican majority who, when they were sworn in on Jan. 11, had crowed about being the first House since Huey P. Long’s time to defy the governor and choose their own leaders.

But in their first foray into actual lawmaking, the proudly independent GOP majority split into factions that couldn’t agree on what spending to cut yet didn’t want to raise taxes.

Unlike in the movies, where disabling the bomb in the last second leads into the celebration scene, Louisiana legislators had failed to fill the deficit and prompted Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, to apologize: “This is no way to do the people’s business. Games were played.”

The putative coup coalition sat in the same office Long stepped out of when he was shot. They let Barras know he had been judged and found wanting. He had forsaken the pragmatists who had rallied around his candidacy. Instead, Barras had favored the hardliners, letting too many acolytes of Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter into leadership and onto key committees.

Had Vitter beaten Democrat John Bel Edwards in the governor’s race, as was widely expected early on, Barras’ boss at IberiaBank would have become commissioner of administration and Rep. Cameron Henry, who ended up as chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, would have been speaker of a House unliberated from the governor’s command.

When Henry, R-Metairie, saw that he couldn’t rally enough votes among Republicans, he threw his support behind Barras rather than let the Democratic contender, New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger III, become speaker.

Barras said he heard a lot from his members about the expectations of the folks who had supported him for speaker and what they thought should or shouldn’t happen to representatives who hadn’t supported him.

“What was more alarming to me was to really hear from the members who had some concerns,” Barras said. “We dispelled a lot of the impressions that were not necessarily fact. The more conversations we had, the more comfortable they became. … Members have been very, very supportive since that time.”

Even Edwards, who scolded the scorched-earth tactics of many in the GOP House and openly worried about Washington-style gridlock, noted Thursday a difference in demeanor. “The pace allows for more discussion, more meetings and collaboration, which is what I’ve told the people of Louisiana that we wanted to do,” he said.

Edwards and Barras still aren’t meeting on a regular basis. They don’t have a regular lunch appointment, as is often seen among political leaders, and they don’t feel comfortable enough to drop in for a beer, which often happens among Louisiana officials. But there’s time for that, Barras said.

On Tuesday, the governor is expected to release how he plans to apply the new revenue and what services he recommends legislators cut. And while that release could invigorate confrontations, Barras says he doesn’t expect the anger that marked the special session.

First off, as Edwards noted, the pace is a lot less frantic than it was in the 25-day special session, Barras said. The members have settled into the routines and relationships necessary for an orderly functioning.

And Barras’ conversation assault is paying off.

In civilian life, he’s an even-keeled bank manager, slow to anger, rarely taking offense publicly — traits that critics say brand him a milquetoast. But he also grew up in the house of a country grocer who was elected Iberia Parish tax assessor for two decades. Barras understands the art of personal relationships and how they can be applied in politics.

He meets officially with legislators, individually and in groups. He also casually wanders the chamber floor — chatting up reps here and there. Such visiting was rarely seen in the past, when members had to ascend the raised dais to engage the speaker.

Barras even ventures into the chamber’s far-left back corner — an exclusive neighborhood rarely, if ever, visited by the GOP hierarchy. It’s a community of Democrats and from where, this time last year, Edwards commanded the Democratic minority in the House.

“Just hearing members’ concerns and questions certainly dispels a lot of that (anger), and a lot of that has calmed considerably,” Barras said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.