On Monday, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder made a bold prediction: He was “comfortable 100%” he would have the votes in the Louisiana House to override Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ veto of a bill targeting transgender athletes, a measure that had energized Republicans to call the first-ever veto session in history.
On Wednesday, the Legislature ended the override session without overturning a single veto, having failed to garner enough votes on the transgender sports bill or any other.
Republican leaders fell two votes short of the 70 needed in the House to bypass the governor and turn the transgender bill into law, a day after the Senate voted to override the governor's rejection of Senate Bill 156.
The vote was an embarrassing defeat for Republican legislative leaders, who convened the historic session with confidence they could overpower the governor politically, using a veto override process that has only been used twice in recorded history. The most recent veto override came in 1993.
The vote was a win for transgender advocates, who passionately fought the bill, deeming it discriminatory. But the failure holds political implications far beyond the transgender sports bill.
Edwards, the only Democrat elected to statewide office, showed he can block veto overrides ahead of a crucial redistricting session next year that will decide the political boundaries for the next decade. That could give Democrats the ability to have their voices heard during redrawing of districts from which congressmen, state representatives, senators and others are elected.
The veto session also further entrenched an increasingly partisan flair in the state House, and frayed relationships between the Legislature and the governor.
Edwards, in a press conference after the Legislature adjourned the override session, said the transgender bill was “mean,” targeting some of the state’s most emotionally fragile, who weren’t even trying to do what the bill prevented them from doing.
“At the end of the day the Legislature got it right,” Edwards said. “If there’s not a problem to correct, why would you even take the slightest risk of harming your economy coming out of a pandemic? It makes no sense to me.”
Edwards was referring to the threat of canceled events, including the NCAA Basketball Final Four slated for New Orleans next year, if the state passed the transgender bill.
The governor vowed to work with his opponents for the remainder of his term.
“I am not gloating,” Edwards said. “Because there’s too much serious business to do.”
Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, R-Houma, and other Republican leaders insisted the veto session – while unsuccessful – established precedent that the Legislature would exert its constitutional right to override the governor in the future.
Schexnayder said in a statement he was “frustrated” with the result, but “encouraged” that the Legislature held the session. He vowed to bring the transgender bill back next year.
Magee also said the session enhanced divisions and partisanship.
“The vote wasn’t about the bill, the vote was about the governor,” Magee said. “I think things got more partisan. That’s not my own personal desire ... that’s the feeling here. It’s now more partisan.”
The Louisiana GOP, which is often at odds with legislative leaders, called on Schexnayder to "immediately replace" the Democratic committee chairs with conservative Republicans. Louis Gurvich, the chair of the state GOP, said in the moments after lawmakers went home, "if this does not happen, then a broader conversation about how the House of Representatives is run will become necessary."
The House vote was one of the most dramatic in recent memory. Both Republicans and Democrats claimed privately they had the votes on Wednesday before the chamber gaveled in, but Democrats secured the commitments of Reps. C. Travis Johnson, D-Vidalia and Roy Daryl Adams, No Party-Jackson. Democrats walking into the chamber said they would succeed.
The veto session cultivated divisions among the various factions in the Legislature. On Tuesday, Sen. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, read a piece of hate mail he received about the gun bill during debate Tuesday, and in an emotional speech said he would vote for only one veto override, on the transgender bill. He urged members to end the divisiveness and “come together.”
His vow to not override any other vetoes poured cold water on any other veto override attempts: With Connick, Senate Republicans have exactly the 26 votes they need to override a veto. Without him, they would need Democrats who showed they were unwilling to vote against the governor on Tuesday.
Edwards and his allies had put on an intense lobbying effort to block the veto override, and supporters of the effort likewise pressured members to vote with them. Edwards and Republicans offered competing carrots and sticks for lawmakers in play, including funding for their districts.
Edwards said he was “very very light on threats,” but “not so light on promises.” He said he used the tools at his disposal, like previous governors have used, and said Republicans did the same thing to whip up votes.
“You’re going to take politics out of politics?” he said.
Richard Carbo, Edwards’ campaign manager for his 2019 re-election bid, even returned from his home in Washington, D.C. to help block the override attempts. Carbo sent a statement on behalf of several of the Democrats who supported the bill but voted against the veto override, explaining their position.
Those lawmakers – Sens. Regina Barrow and Katrina Jackson, as well as Reps. Johnson, Chad Brown, Mack Cormier and Pat Moore – said the current Louisiana High School Athletic Association rules were more restrictive than the bill.
“We recognize that this was fairness in women’s sports, but we were not aware of an exception being made for transgendered males,” the members said. “This exception usurps the total ban from the LHSAA, threatens the intentions of the underlying bill, and does not put all athletes on a level playing field. We initially supported this bill, but with this new information, we cannot allow it to move forward until we have legislation in place that protects all students.”
After the action began Wednesday afternoon, Democrats peppered Schexnayder with procedural questions, including one crucial query: If an override fails, can the House bring it back up for another vote? Schexnayder gave his opinion: lawmakers had one shot at each bill.
Shortly before the vote, a protester was forcibly removed from the balcony overseeing the House, the second day in a row security removed protesters. The balcony was packed with onlookers. State senators who supported the transgender bill watched the action from the side of the chamber. The typically rowdy House was uncharacteristically quiet. Members sat in their seats, many of their eyes fixated on the podium.
Rep. Laurie Schlegel, a Metairie Republican, took the podium to deliver a speech in favor of the bill, urging members to vote the same way they did when the bill got 78 votes in the House during the regular session. She said the bill was about fairness in women’s sports, and that transgender athletes competing in girl’s and women’s sports was a “growing problem” around the country, if not yet in Louisiana.
“Our citizens are united,” she said. “They’re united in favor of this bill ... Respecting biological differences is not discrimination. It is not hate.”
Rep. Royce Duplessis, a New Orleans Democrat known for impassioned speeches on hot-button issues, took the floor next. He laid out a list of issues he saw in the bill, including that transgender youth already suffer from mental health issues and were more concerned with “surviving” than “dominating sports.”
“This is nothing but a manufactured wedge issue that is aimed only at dividing us,” Duplessis said. “And that’s what it has done.”
Magee then moved to end debate and called for a vote. The House agreed, over objections from Rep. Jeremy Lacombe, a moderate Democrat, who said members who were in an “astronomically bad position” in the session wanted to explain their vote.
After members voted, Schexnayder announced the result: “68 yeas and 30 nays.” The bill failed. Supporters in the balcony gasped in disappointment.
Republicans quickly retreated to the basement to hold a delegation meeting as the House took a lengthy recess. About two hours later, they ended the session.
Supporters of the legislation had packed into the State Capitol Tuesday and Wednesday to watch the debate, with “save women’s sports” stickers on their shirts. Religious leaders across the state had made their position known, with several hundred issuing a statement in support earlier and another 100 penning a letter against the bill Tuesday.
Several business leaders wrote a letter earlier in the week warning of economic consequences if the transgender bill passed.
Only one Democrat, Rep. Francis Thompson, of Delhi, voted with Republicans to override the governor. Thompson represents a district that voted for former President Donald Trump 71% to 28% in 2020. He’s the longest-serving member of the Legislature.
Two of three no-party representatives were absent, and the third, Adams, voted with the governor. Republican Rep. Joe Stagni, of Kenner, was the only Republican to vote with the other Democrats to sustain Edwards’ veto.
Republicans actually lost ground from the beginning of the session: 69 members signaled their support for a veto session to begin with. Adams voted for the veto session but sided with the governor on the transgender bill vote. Supporters of the override ended up with 68 votes.
Back on May 27, when the House gave final passage to SB156, the 78-19 votes seemed secure enough to override a gubernatorial veto.
But between then and now, supporters of the transgender ban lost 10 votes. Six came from Democratic members, one from a representative without party affiliation, and three others who voted for the measure in May, didn’t participate in the veto override effort Wednesday.
The six members whose votes flipped were: Reps Adams; Chad Brown, D-Plaquemine; Robby Carter, D-Amite; Mack Cormier, D-Belle Chasse; C. Travis Johnson, D-Vidalia; LaCombe, D-Livonia; and Pat Moore, D-Monroe.
The representatives who had voted for SB156 in May but didn’t vote on Wednesday were: Reps Wilford Carter Sr., D-Lake Charles; Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches; and Malinda White, No Party-Bogalusa.
Voted to override veto of transgender sports bill (68): Speaker Schexnayder, Reps Amedee, Bacala, Bagley, Beaullieu, Bishop, Bourriaque, Butler, Carrier, Coussan, Crews, Davis, Deshotel, DeVillier, DuBuisson, Echols, Edmonds, Edmonston, Emerson, Farnum, Firment, Fontenot, Freiberg, Frieman, Gadberry, Garofalo, Geymann, Goudeau, Harris, Hilferty, Hodges, Hollis, Horton, Huval, Illg, Ivey, M. Johnson, Kerner, Mack, Magee, McCormick, McFarland, McKnight, McMahen, Miguez, G. Miller, Mincey, Muscarello, Nelson, Orgeron, C. Owen, R. Owen, Pressly, Riser, Romero, Schamerhorn, Schlegel, Seabaugh, St. Blanc, Stefanski, Tarver, Thomas, Thompson, Turner, Villio, Wheat, Wright and Zeringue.
Voting to sustain the veto on SB156 (30): Reps Adams, Brass, Brown, Bryant, R. Carter, Cormier, Duplessis, Freeman, Gaines, Green, Hughes, James, Jefferson, Jenkins, T. Johnson, Jones, Jordan, LaCombe, Landry, Larvadain, Lyons, Marcelle, D. Miller, Moore, Newell, Phelps, Pierre, Selders, Stagni and Willard.
Not Voting (6): Reps Carpenter, W. Carter, Cox, Glover, Marino, and White.