State Sen. Page Cortez, a Republican from Lafayette, has secured enough votes among his colleagues to become the next state Senate president, three senators confirmed Friday.
The elevation of Cortez indicates that the state Senate will break from decades of tradition and operate more independently of the governor. This means that Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, will find himself more at odds with the Senate than he did over the past four years when the state Senate president was Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego. Despite his party label, Alario worked closely with the governor and also supported his re-election campaign.
Following this year’s elections, for the first time since at least the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, Republicans hold a two-thirds super-majority, 27 seats, in the 39-member Senate.
“I think you’ll see the Senate become a lot more red,” said state Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin.
Cortez nailed down the necessary 20 votes through private negotiations after state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, ended her bid to become Senate president and brought her supporters behind Cortez, two other senators said.
“He is the best choice to lead our Senate,” said Hewitt. “He is very experienced. He has great people skills. He’s very politically savvy on how the Legislature works.
Unless something unforeseen develops, Cortez will be formally elected to replace the term-limited Alario in January when the new Senate convenes.
“Page realizes that the Senate is significantly more conservative than it was the last term and that this body wants to be more pro-active in establishing policy,” Hewitt added. “I believe that this body would feel that way regardless of who was governor or Senate president.”
Hewitt might have become the next Senate president had Republican businessman Eddie Rispone prevailed in the governor’s race.
The other contenders to be Senate president were: Allain; Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles; and Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen.
Cortez did not return phone calls on Friday.
Ward declined to comment.
Johns did not respond to an interview request.
The election of a new Senate president can be akin to a high-stakes poker game. Each of the candidates flashes his or her cards at times and might also bluff — to get others to fold.
In the past, though, Louisiana’s incoming or incumbent governor has settled the game by anointing the next Senate president, and senators then typically lined up either for or against the governor, regardless of political party.
But Republicans, in their push to make the Legislature more partisan, have weakened Edwards’ hand. Four years ago, the House elected a speaker at odds with a governor for the first time.
Over the past four years, under Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, conservatives in the House sought to cut spending on social programs and to avoid renewing a sales tax increase, against the governor’s wishes.
Alario strengthened Edwards’ negotiating position with the House because all legislators knew that the Senate president would ensure that the final legislation more closely reflected the governor’s views.
That will change to at least some extent under Cortez.
Hewitt and Allain said they expect the Senate will push to make it harder for victims of injury or property damage to win lawsuits against doctors, hospitals, oil companies and the like. Conservative legislators, echoing the view of business groups, believe that Louisiana’s laws tilt too far in favor of trial attorneys at the expense of business.
Edwards is an ally of trial lawyers, who donated big to ensure his re-election, and he will likely resist efforts to make it harder to win big damages.
“I think the Senate will be the strongest Senate we’ve ever had. That thrills me,” said Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby, a political power broker through his large campaign donations who supported Hewitt’s candidacy.
Hewitt and Allain also said they expect the Senate to try to overhaul Louisiana’s tax system, which has high individual and corporate tax rates thanks in part to numerous tax breaks. Edwards will likely support an effort to reduce rates and tax breaks but oppose reducing business taxes or the sales tax rate.
The Senate president wields so much power because he determines which senators chair the various legislative committees as well as all of the other committee assignments. So all senators will want to be on Cortez’s good side, even if they disagree with him on certain issues.
The Senate president is also the spokesman for the upper chamber and also its chief negotiator with the governor.
Cortez represents a conservative south Lafayette district. It gave Rispone 69% of its vote. He has compiled a conservative voting record over the past four years but voted with Edwards and his allies at times.
The scorecard of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry shows that 10 other senators voted more often with the powerful business lobby over the past four years than did Cortez.
He was one of 33 senators who voted to renew a 0.45 percentage point increase in the sales tax in 2018, a high-profile, contentious issue that was supported by Edwards to balance the budget but that more conservative senators opposed.
A onetime high school football coach and history teacher, Cortez and his family own a furniture store in Lafayette. He is an avid runner, having completed at least 10 half-marathons.
Cortez would be the first Senate president from Lafayette since Allen Bares was tapped for the post by then-Gov.-elect Buddy Roemer in 1987. Bares lasted only two years until senators allied with former Gov. Edwin Edwards replaced him with Sen. Sammy Nunez, D-Chalmette.
Correction: This article initially reported that Republicans hold 26, not 27, seats in the Senate.