Taylor Barras needs a win.
The low-key, genial Republican speaker of the state House, Barras has had a tough 2018 in Baton Rouge.
During the regular legislative session, he sponsored two high-profile bills — one sought by Uber and Lyft, the other by owners of the Harrah’s New Orleans casino — and both died thanks to the state Senate.
During the last special session, which ended two weeks ago, he was outvoted on the final two tax votes in the House — the kind of defeat rarely suffered by his predecessors.
Meanwhile, Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed eight infrastructure projects in Barras’ district centered in Iberia Parish.
Barras will be tested once again when the Legislature reconvenes Monday for a seventh special session under Edwards. The goal during the special session remains the same as during the previous six special sessions — stabilize funding for the state health system, public colleges and universities, the severely disabled, the TOPS scholarship program, the K-12 public education system, sheriffs and district attorneys, and the prison system.
The governor, Republicans and Democrats alike in the state Senate, and Democrats and moderate Republicans in the House all blame Barras for that not happening yet.
“It is a total collapse of leadership,” Edwards said at a news conference immediately after the last special session ended on June 4 without the House approving the sales tax revenue needed to fully fund government sought by a majority of the Legislature — a result that led Edwards to call this week’s special session.
Following earlier special and regular sessions, Edwards and others have chastised a group of conservatives in the House that has opposed tax and budget measures that would raise and spend more money for government programs. Edwards and the others believe that Barras is serving a hard-core group of conservatives bent on trying to weaken the Democratic governor politically in advance of next year's gubernatorial election.
Barras believes he has served the public well.
"Although some revenue will be needed to balance our budget, the work my chamber has done over the previous six special sessions has saved our taxpayers from getting taxed over $1 billion," he said in a written statement after declining to answer questions. "For that reason, I am very pleased with the way 2018 continues to play out."
Barras remains popular among conservative Republicans.
In their view, Barras has kept down government spending and taxes.
“Taylor has done a very good job running the House, being the leader on our side,” said state Rep. Bob Hensgens, R-Gueydan.
A proposal pushed by Barras called the Louisiana Checkbook passed the Legislature this year, although it was sponsored by state Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, not the speaker. Conservatives believe it will reduce wasteful government spending by making it easier to track online, although the Legislature hasn't yet found the money to fund it.
Bernie Pinsonat, a longtime pollster and political consultant, said he believes political polarization has dealt Barras a difficult hand.
“One-third of Republicans are super red state Republicans,” Pinsonat said, making it extremely difficult to reach the two-thirds threshold needed to approve tax increases. “The Capitol has become a war zone. It’s way beyond Taylor Barras’ ability to put everything together and make sure everyone gets along.”
Those dynamics came to the forefront during the last special session, the second of the year and the sixth during Edwards’ tenure.
Edwards favored filling a budget gap by renewing half of a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase enacted in 2016 that expires on June 30.
About 20 Republicans opposed renewing any portion of the expiring sales tax, a position that would force deep cuts in the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships and in programs that serve the poor and disabled.
Barras took a middle position, favoring the renewal of a third of the 1-cent tax.
The climactic vote came 27 minutes before the special session had to end, on House Bill 12 by Leger, to renew the half-cent. It had just passed the state Senate. If HB12 passed, the budget crisis would be over. It won 63 votes. Twenty two Republicans voted for the measure, including two committee chairmen appointed by Barras.
Barras voted among the 41 against the bill, along with his top two lieutenants, state Rep. Lance Harris, who heads the Republican House caucus, and state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who heads the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.
Leger’s bill failed, however, because it needed 70 votes, or two-thirds of the 105-member House.
Harris then sought a vote on his third-cent sales tax renewal. Barras voted with him, but House Bill 27 registered only 38 votes, or 32 short of what it needed.
Nine of his 16 committee chairmen voted against the measure.
Hensgens doesn’t see the votes as a defeat for Barras.
“Taylor showed leadership,” Hensgens said. “He released Republicans (to vote as they saw fit).”
Barras was a surprise choice to be elected by his colleagues on the first day they and Edwards took office in January 2016, a compromise pick between Henry, an anti-tax conservative, and Leger, who was supported by Edwards and virtually all Democrats in the House. Elected originally as a Democrat, Barras had not held a leadership position during his first two terms in the House.
In his new post, Barras, a 61-year-old banker, became the most powerful member of the House, similar in his role to that of the player-coach of a football team.
He decides who chairs each committee, who sits on each committee and which bills will be heard each day. He also serves as the House’s lead spokesman with the public, and the chief negotiator with the governor and the state Senate. And he can sponsor legislation and has a vote just like the other House members.
The measure Barras sponsored on behalf of Uber and Lyft during the regular session blew through the House 97-1. Barras said House Bill 749 would expand the ride-hailing services by creating uniform standards similar to those in 44 states.
But members of the Senate Commerce Committee questioned why Uber and Lyft face less government regulation than traditional taxi companies. They also questioned why the measure would give regulatory oversight to the state agriculture department, rather than the Public Service Commission. They killed the bill without a vote.
The measure Barras sponsored on behalf of Caesars Entertainment, the parent company of Harrah’s, started off strong. House Bill 553 sailed through the House 79-12, with practically no questions asked. Barras said Caesars was promising to invest $350 million in the casino project, create 500 permanent jobs, and generate millions of dollars for the state and city in new tax revenue.
But the measure foundered before a Senate committee, amid questions of whether the legislation actually offered a good deal to the state. The Senate insisted on making Caesars pay tens of millions more over the life of a new 30-year operating license.
The concerns in the Senate spread to the House.
“The more we learned has been concerning,” said state Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma.
The measure died on the final day of the regular session when Senate and House leaders could not broker a deal supported by both chambers that was acceptable to Caesars’ lobbyists.
When Edwards vetoed the eight infrastructure projects in Barras’ district, the governor was sending an unmistakable message to the speaker, according to State Capitol insiders. They were one-fifth of the projects Edwards vetoed.
It is worth noting that the eight vetoes would not have an immediate effect on Barras’ constituents because all projects were at the bottom of the funding priority list and had yet to get state funding.
Pinsonat noted that Barras has survived constant speculation that House members could oust him.
“He’s still speaker,” Pinsonat said. “He must be doing something right.”