For generations, Louisiana operated under the depressing assumption that its Legislature could not manage itself. Governors hand-picked top leaders of the House and Senate, with lawmakers generally acquiescing to the wishes of the chief executive. The arrangement relegated the Legislature to a junior partner, not an equal branch of government.
That tradition changed last year when members of the GOP-controlled House bucked the wishes of newly elected Gov. John Bel Edwards and picked their own speaker, Republican state Rep.Taylor Barras of New Iberia. In doing so, lawmakers expressed a basic tenet of government — that a legislative body should be a principled check on the chief executive, not a puppet.
In asserting the authority to chart their own destiny, legislators also faced the obligation, where they differed with the governor, to offer coherent alternatives.
That clarity of purpose was sadly lacking in the Legislature last week, as lawmakers ended the regular session in a shambles, requiring a special session over a budget debated for months. Yet another special session is a sure bet for this fall or early next year to address a projected $1.6 billion budget shortfall that lawmakers have, for the most part, ignored.
As the GOP-dominated House slowly slipped toward entropy in the closing moments of the regular session Thursday, with members shouting protests from the floor about a derailed agreement on the budget, Barras looked not like a captain of state but a confused spectator.
Legislative independence is a fledgling concept in Louisiana, a reality sure to involve growing pains. But growth wasn’t a theme at the Capitol during the wearisome regular session. Instead, taxpayers witnessed a daily exercise in regression, as lawmakers timidly pulled the covers over their heads, sucked their thumbs, and waited in vain for the fiscal monster beneath their budgetary bed to go away.
Last week’s meltdown at the State Capitol punctuated a season of deep challenges for legislative bodies beyond Louisiana. In Texas, lawmakers nearly came to blows over the issue of sanctuary cities. In Washington, Congress continues to be defined by deadlock. And in England, a national election has thrown doubt on the ability of the British Parliament, a touchstone of representative government, to do the people’s work.
Such headlines help make the sinister argument that free people cannot govern themselves. It’s an idea we refuse to accept since we know the great good that representative government can do. Its promise was evident in one of the few victories in the regular session when lawmakers of various political stripes put party aside and agreed on a sweeping package of criminal justice reforms.
Although lawmakers worked together to give convicts a better shot at becoming productive citizens, the Legislature must confront its own confinement — a prison of political paralysis that has put Louisiana’s future on hold.
Luckily, the leaders we’ve sent to Baton Rouge hold the key to their own liberation. It rests, quite simply, in the resolve to rise above partisan bickering, and compromise for the common good.