It took an ugly gubernatorial primary two years ago to expose the deep rift between now-former U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, but the truth is that they've never been allies. Still, the two former Republican lawmakers can share credit for a decades-old innovation in government that's still playing out.
Back when Vitter was in the House and Dardenne in the Senate, the pair teamed up to create term limits for legislators. At the time, the move was pitched as an idealistic return to the days of citizen politicians who would serve for a time then go home. They would not be consumed by getting reelected, but rather free to do the right thing.
It hasn't exactly worked out that way in the 23 years since lawmakers reluctantly approved the measure and voters enthusiastically endorsed it. And as the state approaches another milestone on the term limits calendar, it doesn't appear to be working that way now.
The term limits constitutional amendment was adopted back in the mid-1990s, but in order to get it through the Legislature, its treatment of lawmakers was gentle. No matter how long somebody had already been in office, everyone got a fresh three terms, or 12 years, before they'd be forced to leave.
That set up one wave election in 2007, when many long-timers were forced out of comfortable seats. A large group of House members headed to the Senate, and the House filled up with newcomers who were in many cases more conservative and ideologically focused than their predecessors.
The second wave is scheduled to hit in 2019, when many current lawmakers elected in 2007 will have to go.
The numbers are pretty staggering. Thirty-five of 105 House members, including major players such as House Speaker Taylor Barras, Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry and Ways and Means Chairman Neil Abramson, cannot run for reelection next time around. And sixteen of 39 current senators, including Senate President and legislative lion John Alario, will soon be done.
So in theory, a third of the House and more than 40 percent of the Senate should enter next week's special legislative session unencumbered, free to take tough votes without having to worry about some interest group coming after them or some consultant filming an attack ad. And in theory, that should help bolster the forces, led by Gov. John Bel Edwards, who want to take on the tough job of structural tax reform rather than just put another band-aid on the budget.
Louisiana lawmakers will return to the Capitol this month for another special session to try to shore up the state's finances. Again.
Yet as lawmakers prepare to tackle the daunting fiscal cliff that they'll go over this summer if they don't replace $1 billion or so in expiring sales taxes, too many — particularly those term-limited House leaders — are acting the way politicians have always acted.
While disappointing, this outcome was actually pretty easy to foresee.
The idea that term limits would produce courageous citizen legislators unconcerned about reelection was never realistic; instead, it has created a generation of incumbents bent on angling for the next job. In fact, the long list of House members about to be termed out is teeming with likely candidates for the Senate next time around, in some cases in districts where they'll be pitted against current colleagues.
Nobody would ever call either Steve Scalise or Cedric Richmond a political moderate. Not now, with the two Louisiana congressmen holding major…
There's a better chance of statesmanship in the Senate, where a bunch of elders are destined for retirement. The challenge here is that revenue raising-measures must originate in the House, so senators have mostly been sidelined.
It's not that term limits haven't shaken up politics in Baton Rouge. The House class of 2007 has introduced a level of party politics that wasn't there before, and with so many of them aiming for the Senate, that trend will surely continue.
But there's one thing that the long-running fiscal battle has proven: The term limits revolution has been no match for politics as usual.