As she led the state House of Representatives in prayer last week, Rep. Katrina Jackson’s words seemed to recap a particularly contentious set of days in the chamber.
“Father, your word says that a house divided against itself cannot stand, so on today we pray for unity, that we may be able to stand for the people of Louisiana,” Jackson, D-Monroe, said asking for heavenly help for lawmakers to work together and “find commonalities that are greater than our differences.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards may be seeking a little divine assistance of his own in the House.
The new governor didn’t even make it through his first day in office before running into the harsh realities of being a Democratic statewide elected official in a state that tends to favor Republicans these days.
It came in the form of a House snub of decades of tradition that gave the governor a heavy hand in choosing legislative leaders.
Instead, the majority-Republican House refused Edwards’ pick for speaker, Democratic Rep. Walt Leger, of New Orleans, and selected its own candidate, Republican Rep. Taylor Barras, of New Iberia. It was the first contested vote for House speaker in 32 years. And the last time there was a divided vote, the governor’s favored contender won.
After years of talking about legislative independence as a leader of the House’s minority party, Edwards got a dose of that independence when he wanted it least — after he was promoted to the state’s top job and trying to meddle in the same legislative leadership decisions as governors before him.
The House vote, which came only minutes before Edwards walked out to the steps of the Louisiana Capitol for his inauguration ceremony, was a blow that emboldened Republican lawmakers and worried Democrats, at least privately, about what lies ahead.
The new streak of legislative autonomy could signify a rocky road for Louisiana’s new governor as he grapples with entrenched budget problems. It also could be a sign of more direct partisanship in a Legislature that has eschewed some of the ways of Washington.
And it comes only weeks before Edwards plans a special legislative session in mid-February aimed at stabilizing the state’s budget, closing a shortfall estimated to top $700 million and rewriting the state’s tax laws to help do it. Raising taxes takes a two-thirds vote. In a divided House not led by an Edwards ally, that could be a tough hurdle to reach.
The Senate also followed a new secret ballot approach to choosing its president, a change approved last year to minimize a governor’s ability to interfere.
That change appeared to matter less, however, since Edwards didn’t object to Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego, returning as president. In addition, Alario has worked closely with whoever is governor, Republican or Democrat, during his many years as a legislator.
In the House, lawmakers downplayed the notion of partisanship, with those on the winning side talking more about independence. Both Republicans and Democrats publicly spoke of working together for the good of the state.
Edwards echoed similar sentiments.
“My approach is going to be exactly the same as it was. I’m going to work with leadership there, just as I would have no matter who else might have been speaker,” the governor said. He added: “I don’t have any concerns right now. I hope by the end of the session, I’ll be able to tell you that there was no reason for concern.”
Barras said he and Edwards have talked about keeping communications open and working together.
“Having served with Gov. Edwards for the last eight years, I certainly understand where his passion is so I think we have had a great rapport as colleagues up until this point,” the new House speaker said.
The newfound legislative independence comes at a politically tricky time, with tough votes ahead on possible budget cuts and tax hikes, raising questions about whether lawmakers may later regret their autonomy.
By selecting their own leaders, lawmakers also lose much of their ability to blame a governor for unpopular decisions or mistakes.
Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter, @melindadeslatte.