For decades, governors played off political differences between the House and Senate by allying with the leader of one chamber or the other to exercise firm control over the Louisiana Legislature.
That’s changed in dramatic fashion this year in the State Capitol under a new Republican legislative regime that has the biggest Republican majorities ever.
For perhaps the first time in Louisiana, the House speaker and the Senate president are joining forces to aggressively push an agenda that is at odds with the governor’s.
Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, are advancing a host of causes favored by business groups and social conservatives – a development that has left Gov. John Bel Edwards and Democratic legislators playing defense.
“It’s quite obvious that the Senate and House leadership are making a conscious effort to work together,” said state Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles. “I personally think that’s for the good of our state.”
Though they are both Republicans, the Cortez/Schexnayder alliance comes as something of a surprise. That’s because Schexnayder was only elected to his leadership post with the help of Democratic House members, who in January joined with a faction of Republican members to elect him speaker over state Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany. Republicans provided all of Mack’s support. In return for their help, Schexnayder gave Democrats five committee chairmanships.
After the regular session began in March, however, he unified the two Republican camps. Since then, Democrats have had little chance of pushing measures opposed by the Republican leadership.
Cortez and Schexnayder come from different backgrounds and didn’t know each other well before this year.
“He likes fast cars. I like fast horses,” Cortez said in a brief interview.
The two men have bonded over their shared conservative outlook.
Under their direction, Republican legislators in late May called themselves into the special session currently underway. Only once before in the Legislature’s history had lawmakers called themselves into a special session, a role that typically falls to the governor.
During the regular and special sessions, Republicans have taken up scores of bills that had nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic. They have advanced legislation to cut corporate taxes, kill lawsuits filed by parish governments against oil and gas companies, loosen restrictions on guns, redirect federal aid from local governments to businesses and ensure that car-accident victims have fewer opportunities to win big judgments.
Not enough legislators favored enacting major corporate tax cuts or nullifying the parish lawsuits, so those measures died. Lawmakers did approve the other bills. On Friday, Edwards announced the veto of eight bills, including Senate Bill 418, which sought to limit lawsuits by car accident victims. Lawmakers on Monday will take up three bills, one of which they hope will replace the vetoed SB418. He signed into law House Bill 334, which broadens the ability of people to carry guns into places of worship.
Schexnayder and Cortez also have created an organization called Leading Louisiana that is collecting donations from companies and wealthy individuals to run media campaigns to "educate" the public on issues important to them.
Edwards, meanwhile, shelved his legislative plans to provide more money for schools and teachers after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. He has been playing defense since the Legislature resumed its business on May 4 and continued its work with the 30-day special session that began on June 1.
“The governor doesn’t have the same influence on the Legislature that he has had in the past because the Legislature has decided to unify and become a co-equal branch of government as outlined under the constitution,” said state Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, who chairs the Republican House delegation.
When Louisiana’s current constitution was adopted in 1974, the Legislature was nearly all Democratic, and the most important political fault line was whether lawmakers lined up with or against the governor. That political split continued in the 1980s and 1990s even as Republicans steadily won seats held by Democrats. Republicans claimed majority control of both houses in 2011.
One thing held constant, however: A governor would fortify his or her hand by aligning with the leaders of one chamber, generally the Senate, which is typically easier to corral because it has fewer members.
Over the last eight years, for example, first then-Gov. Bobby Jindal and then Edwards stymied initiatives by the more conservative House because of the control that then-Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, exercised over his chamber. Alario was a close associate of both governors, despite their political differences.
House members inevitably had to water down initiatives to make them palatable to Alario, his Senate allies and the governor.
Term limits kept Alario from seeking re-election last year.
That created an opportunity for conservatives and their allies in the business community, and they elected more Republicans than ever before.
Republicans now hold 27 of the Senate’s 39 seats and 67 of the House’s 105 seats. This means they have slightly more than a two-thirds super-majority in the Senate and are three votes shy of having one in the House.
“The days of Alario and what he could do are over,” said former state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton. “These guys have their own agenda. You have the Legislature moving in one direction and the governor moving in another.”
State Rep. Robby Carter, D-Greensburg, said that term limits, which fully took effect last year by forcing the retirement of legislators like Alario, who had served first in the House and then the Senate, has contributed to the closer working relationship between the House and the Senate.
Of the 39 senators, 20 advanced from the House.
Many senators “still have friendships over here,” Carter said.
State Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, doesn’t believe that the Cortez-Schexnayder alliance is benefiting the state’s residents if it is purely partisan.
“I don’t know that it’s the unity we really need,” he said. “It appears more to be along party lines. My concern is always that unity the state needs has to be bipartisan, to work for all of Louisiana.”
Lawmakers speaking privately say that Cortez is the dominant partner, although Cortez said he and Schexnayder conceive their initiatives together.
Cortez, 58, is older, better educated, has served longer in the Legislature and, unlike Schexnayder, previously held legislative leadership positions.
Cortez graduated from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and became a high school football coach and history teacher. He now runs La-Z-Boy Home Furnishings and Décor in Lafayette, which his family owns.
Cortez represents a conservative south Lafayette district that gave 69% of its vote in last year’s governor’s election to Eddie Rispone, the Republican challenger who narrowly lost to Edwards.
Cortez spent four years in the House and is now in his third four-year term in the Senate. During his last term, he chaired the Senate Transportation committee.
“During a very hard time, he’s been able to point us in the right direction. He has the respect of the Senate,” said state Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, who lost out to Cortez to be the Senate president.
Cortez seems less certain in working with the press. He grants interviews, but, unlike his predecessors, keeps them short by having a Senate sergeant-at-arms official say he has to attend a meeting.
Schexnayder, 51, didn’t attend college, instead receiving an automotive service excellence certificate from the Allen Institute of Atlanta. He went on to become a racecar driver and mechanic at the lower levels of the professional racing circuit in the South. He managed a Firestone store and later owned Car Craft Automotive in Sorrento, which is now closed. Schexnayder filed for bankruptcy in 1993 but emerged from it in 2011.
His 2019 personal financial disclosure report, filed in April, lists the $28,000 he received as a state legislator as his only source of income.
Schexnayder represents small towns and rural areas around Gonzalez in a district that gave 59% of its vote to Rispone.
Schexnayder was a backbencher during his first eight years in the Legislature, but has won command of the House as speaker.
State Rep. Sam Jenkins, of Shreveport, the House Democratic caucus leader, said he was disappointed Schexnayder didn’t inform Democrats that he was asking Republicans to sign the petition to call the Legislature into the special session.
But beyond that, Jenkins offered only positive words for Schexnayder.
“We can’t just say that the bills that didn’t make it out were the speaker’s fault,” Jenkins said. “He’s trying to bring both sides together and discuss how we can meet everybody’s interest going forward. I meet and talk with him on a regular basis. A foundation has been laid where we can work more closely than in the past.”
State Rep. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, praised the speaker.
“I’ve watched him closely,” said Thompson, who has spent 46 years combined in the House and Senate. “He’s prepared. He’s organized. He’s well spoken. He doesn’t get confused. He’s been able to learn the process as quickly as ever I’ve seen a speaker learn the process.”
One area where Schexnayder doesn’t feel comfortable is speaking with the press. Unlike his predecessors, he rarely makes himself available to reporters immediately after the day’s legislative session has ended. People close to him say he’s afraid of misspeaking.
Schexnayder didn’t respond to interview requests for this article, even after being told it would report how he and Cortez are working together in an unprecedented fashion.
“I’m glad somebody noticed it,” he said before heading into the speaker’s office and shutting the door behind him.