Gov. John Bel Edwards surely misread the mood of the state House when he lobbied the Republican-majority body to choose a fellow Democrat, Rep. Walt Leger III, as speaker.
But Edwards was right about this: Who’s in charge in the Legislature matters deeply to any governor.
Exhibit A is Senate President John Alario. A Democrat-turned-Republican from Westwego, Alario is so trusted by his peers that nobody considered challenging him, even though he makes no secret of his view that a big part of his job is to give the governor’s agenda a good chance to succeed (Alario played a similar role under Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and was widely expected to do the same had Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter become governor).
And indeed, that’s how legislative business has played out during this busy year. Alario put Democratic gubernatorial allies in charge of the two main money committees, with J.P. Morrell, of New Orleans, chairing Revenue and Fiscal Affairs and Eric LeFleur, of Ville Platte, over Finance, at a time when closing a massive budget shortfall overshadowed all other priorities.
Alario chose Columbia Republican Neil Riser to head the Labor Committee — evidence of another signature of Alario’s leadership, the drive to spread the choice assignments around and make as many senators as possible happy. But he stacked the committee with members who were likely to favor Edwards’ signature proposals to raise the minimum wage and give women additional legal tools to pursue allegations of discrimination in pay.
If it mattered to Edwards that Alario ran the Senate, it certainly mattered that Taylor Barras, a well-liked New Iberia Republican who’d never held a leadership post before, emerged as the compromise choice for House speaker.
Barras was elected after a group of less-ideologically inclined Republicans balked at supporting Rep. Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican and protégé of U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
And whether he intended to or whether he was maneuvered by the forces looking to establish a more partisan dynamic, Barras set up key committees to do just the opposite of what Alario intended.
On Labor, Barras gave the chairmanship to Democrat Patrick Jefferson, of Homer, but loaded the committee with Republicans, who ultimately killed Edwards’ equal pay bill after it was passed by the Senate (the minimum wage bill made it out of Senate committee but never got to the floor).
Henry got the chairmanship of an Appropriations Committee that was notably stacked with conservatives. He used it during the regular session to push back on Edwards’ attempts to raise taxes to close the budget shortfall. Among other maneuvers, Henry tried to shield the popular TOPS scholarships, a key priority for many Republicans, from deep cuts that would be required without new revenue. Notably, the full House rejected this and some of his other efforts.
The chairmanship of Ways and Means went to the only Democratic vote against Edwards’ choice of Leger, Neil Abramson, of New Orleans.
Rather than playing a peacemaker, though, Abramson infuriated his fellow House Democrats, Alario and other senators of both parties and the governor who wanted to hammer out differences between the House and Senate versions of the state’s all-important construction budget. Abramson said there were technical and legal issues that could not be worked out in the session’s finals days.
As it did with Henry, the full House brushed Abramson back, too. A majority voted on the session’s last day to express support for bringing the Senate version of the bill to a vote, and Abramson’s last-minute move to call it up technically failed because it required two-thirds support. As a result, the measure never passed, projects are at least temporarily stalled and the matter has spilled into a special session that was supposed to be focused on closing the remaining budget gap.
And this week, Abramson cast the deciding committee vote against an Edwards-backed, Republican-authored proposal to raise revenue by reducing itemized income tax deductions. He told reporters he actually backed Edwards’ original intent but didn’t like an amendment that had been attached. The governor’s allies, though, see more mischief in the move, and Abramson surely knows that his vote made ultimate adoption much more challenging.
Given how the never-ending series of sessions has played out so far, you can bet that Edwards would like another shot at that leadership vote.
The real question is how many House members would, too. Because who’s in charge matters just as much to them as it does to Edwards.