Are the wheels falling off of the state House’s leadership bandwagon?
In January, the GOP majority in the chamber made a dramatic change with past practice by electing one of its own speaker of the House, against the wishes of the newly elected Gov. John Bel Edwards.
After a lot of self-congratulation among House members, the past six months have been tough on Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia.
Early on, the speaker drew criticism from Edwards, because the fractious GOP caucus split over the painful votes for tax increases in the first special session. The governor wondered aloud, with whom do you negotiate in the House?
That chaos in the House was more vivid in contrast with the Senate. Long-serving legislator John Alario, R-Westwego, has a firm grasp of what his members will accept or reject, and provides a level of certainty in the legislative process as president of the Senate.
Not so across the marble hall: Even the gentlemanly Alario was moved to complain about the House failing to move legislation in a timely manner.
Barras’ chamber utterly broke down at the end of the first special session, with lawmakers voting for more than $1 billion in new taxes in an eight-minute period. Obviously, many of those measures had been discussed for weeks before those final votes, but the management of the calendar is one of the most vital tasks for the speaker.
Now the lawmakers are in a second special session, with the majority of items on the agenda fixing errors in the bills passed in those iconic eight minutes of chaos.
But that’s not the only problem of the special session: The House failed in the closing day of the regular session to pass a construction budget, contained in House Bill 2. There was a dispute about substance between the House and Senate over the construction bill, and we like the fact that the House was trying to change business-as-usual over HB2.
What nobody found kosher was the author of the bill absenting himself from the chamber, refusing to take up the measure as a way of stalling out the clock as the session closed. State Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, is the speaker’s pick as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee; he and Barras were the goats as members raged that the bill would not come up, and senators across the hall marked time waiting for a bill that never came.
In a very unusual move, the House majority — including a number of frustrated Republicans — twice voted to rebuke the speaker for the delay, but it takes a two-thirds vote to override the man on the high dais with a big gavel.
Now, HB2 is added to the agenda of a second special session that may be as contentious as the first. Is the speaker able to bring order out of this chaos?
Legislators have a right to pick their own leaders, but they owe it to taxpayers to elect folks who can actually lead.