When the Louisiana Legislature gavels into session at noon Monday, newly installed Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, both Republicans, promise less friction but more determination to make the Legislature an independent branch of government.

“Clay and I have a similar appreciation for teamwork and for working together,” said Cortez, 58, of Lafayette, sitting next to the House speaker at a Louisiana Association of Business & Industry annual meeting.

“We’re not going to have the personal attacks. Debate can be heated, passionate, without being personal,” Schexnayder, of Gonzales, told The Advocate last week. “We have to have a working relationship. We’ll stay in touch with each other, and the governor will be involved in those conversations.”

The new spirit of collaboration reworks the interchamber friction, highlighted by intransigence and abusive language, that marked previous sessions. The Republican-dominated Senate tamped the brakes on the GOP-led House, often in favor of the governor.

Earlier this year, Cortez sided with Schexnayder over the Edwards administration in refusing to adopt higher income projections the governor wanted — and economists recommended — to build next year’s budget. The two also backed state Treasurer John Schroder, a frequent Republican critic of Edwards, to keep Citibank, one of the nation’s largest banks, from doing business with the state because of policies that limit its customers who sell guns.

The new dynamic could force Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to rework his approach with lawmakers.

"I feel like probably for the first time in Louisiana's history, you are going to have a separate branch of government," said former Lafayette Mayor Joel Robideaux, a former House member and friend of Cortez for the past 30 years.

More than 1,100 bills will be considered during the 85-day session. Taxes can only be considered during sessions in odd-numbered years or when specially called. But a lot is on the agenda, including passing a budget that dictates state government spending for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and an effort by the business community to change Louisiana’s way of handling lawsuits in hopes of lowering car insurance rates.

Edwards will speak to the House and Senate at 1 p.m. The session must end by 6 p.m. June 1.

Schexnayder, 51, added that committees will hit the ground running and the chambers will begin on time in order to move legislation more quickly through the process.

New leaders and legislators leaning more into their work won’t be the only change since the last term.

It’ll be the first time in a generation that the Legislature convenes without the guiding hands of House Clerk Butch Speer, and Senate Secretary Glenn Koepp. Both staffers retired after decades in the State Capitol. They had the institutional knowledge and grasp of the rules necessary to keep legislation moving.

Both were replaced by longtime aides: Yolanda Dixon, who is the new Senate secretary, and Michelle Fontenot, who is the new House clerk, but this is the first legislative session in four decades without Speer and Koepp.

Also gone is the well-respected John Alario Jr., of Westwego, who joined the Legislature in 1971 and retired in December. He was able to keep ornery bills off a governor’s desk. As a reliable ally of Edwards, and Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal before him, Alario also helped the Senate and the governor to prevail on most high-profile battles.

"Last year, the House was independent; the Senate tended to side with the (Edwards) administration," noted lobbyist Mike Michot, a former senator who Cortez succeeded.

"It is lining up where the House and Senate may be more aligned with each other," he said.

The 105-member House has 45 new members, including two former senators. The House has 68 Republicans, 35 Democrats and two without party affiliation, though one independent votes with the Democrats and the other will be joining the minority party this week. Still, the GOP is only two votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override a governor’s veto.

The 39-member Senate includes 20 new faces, though 10 of them have House experience. The Senate has gone from 25 Republicans and 14 Democrats to 27 Republicans and 12 Democrats. The upper chamber has enough Republicans, if they vote as a bloc, to override.

The last few House speakers came from the world of real estate development, finance and education. A whole lot of speakers have been lawyers.

Schexnayder is probably the first Louisiana House speaker who can fix a car and definitely the only one who has raced cars.

Back when legislators redrew the House districts to better align with 2010 Census population counts, lawmakers shifted House District 81 upriver from affluent Jefferson Parish neighborhoods that had elected David Duke, then David Vitter.

Schexnayder’s District 81 now includes portions of Livingston Parish south of Interstate 12, the southeastern portion of Ascension Parish, as well as precincts on the east bank of St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes between Gramercy and Reserve. Its voters now are largely blue collar white residents who left the farm for factory work and are shifting their political allegiances from Democratic candidates to Republicans.

The district’s voters backed the campaigns of both Democratic Gov. Edwards and Republican President Donald Trump.

A graduate of French Settlement High School, Schexnayder’s related to a whole lot of his constituents, many of whom descended from Schexnayder families who arrived in the 1700s to the River Parishes’ German Coast.

A newbie to politics in 2011, Schexnayder joined one Democrat and four Republicans of varying conservative intensities in the representative’s race. An admittedly poor speaker, Schexnayder told voters that his wheelhouse is building coalitions — an argument voters accepted during these times when many politicians are rewarded for not negotiating.

For years, Schexnayder repaired vehicles at his Car Craft Automotive shop. But the Sorrento facility was flooded in August 2016, destroying much of his equipment. He has since rented out the space to a young mechanic and now focuses on home construction and renovation.

When not required to — the Legislature has a strict dress code on session days — Schexnayder shows up at the State Capitol in jeans and cowboy boots.

“A mechanic tells you what’s wrong with the car and how much it’s going to cost. Not a whole lot of extra,” said Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma. “He has an open door policy. Nobody will be turned away. His personality makes people feel comfortable.”

Magee said he finds that Schexnayder listens to contradictory ideas. He then can summarize the different positions fairly and without dismissing those ideas that he opposes.

Perhaps his most visible coalition is the one Schexnayder built with the 35-member Democratic minority plus enough Republicans to win the speakership race with Albany Rep. Sherman Mack, who had the backing of big Republican donors and party leadership.

In an interview, Cortez said his bid for the Senate's top spot got a boost when he was making one-on-one pitches to senators, including new arrivals from the suddenly freewheeling House.

"I think when I said I want to have independence that resonated with every one of them, whether it was Democrat or Republican," he said.

Cortez won a House seat in 2007 and his Senate post in 2011, capturing one of the most Republican and affluent senatorial districts in the state.

Cortez started aiming to be Senate president from the beginning.

What he saw then was that, in 2019, only a handful of Republicans would be starting their third and final terms. "I always felt like there was an opportunity for me," he said.

Cortez got the political bug early.

"I remember my grandfather and father were always watching the returns on election night," he said. "It was almost like watching a football game. It was real competitive. I was always enamored of it."

Cortez is the son of educators. He has five brothers and sisters, two children of his own and became a first-time grandfather a few days ago.

From 1988 to 1993, he taught honors American history at his alma mater — Lafayette High School — and was offensive coordinator for the football team.

All that changed in 1993, when his father-in-law invited him to join the family furniture business, where he is in charge of marketing and buying for a La-Z-Boy in Lafayette. The 12,000-foot warehouse across the street is run by his wife, daughter and mother-in-law.

After more than a decade in the furniture business Cortez's circle of friends were entering state politics — Michot, former Rep. Jerry Luke LeBlanc and current state Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks. "I said 'You know what, now is my time,'" Cortez said.

Cortez is known as affable and approachable, a lawmaker who said he favors consensus over ideology.

"I say I am a conservative pragmatist," he said. "You can be conservative, but you can also be practical and very realistic about solutions."

The new Senate leader plays guitar, has a passion for horse racing and has finished 10 half marathons and four marathons, including the New York City Marathon twice.

Michot said friends laugh about the time Cortez retrieved a copy of the State Constitution from the trunk of his car to settle an argument.

"He takes his job very seriously," he said.

Other hot-button issues

Several high-profile measures targeting national topics already are attracting attention before the session begins.

  • Two Republican bills would keep transgender students from playing sports aligned with their gender identities, similar to proposals in several other states and drawing Louisiana into a national debate over LGBTQ rights.
  • Lawmakers also will wade into discussions of whether college athletes should receive compensation, whether to loosen vaccine requirements and whether to ban discrimination based on a person's natural hairstyle.
  • They'll revisit annual debates, such as deciding if they want to expand Louisiana's medical marijuana program, require recess time for children in school or centralize the state's sales tax collections, rather than having local officials do the work.
  • In other areas, the House and Senate will review a proposed bill of rights for children in Louisiana's foster care system, determine if they want to allow online lottery ticket sales and consider banning raffles of animals at carnivals.

Source: The Associate Press

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.