House Speaker Taylor Barras was described last week “as the ultimate gentleman” in the announcement that he would be the Mardi Gras Grand Marshal in his New Iberia hometown.
That accurately describes the patient banker who quietly herded various factions of angry Republican and Democratic representatives through seven special and three regular sessions before passing a state budget with enough funds to cover expenses.
Twice, adversaries tried to oust him and, by his own account, came close. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has never been shy about expressing how wanting he found the speaker’s leadership. Through it all, Barras did not lash back, saying he was too busy to comment.
Barras’ diplomatic white gloves came off at the recent Southern Republican Leadership Conference during a 15-minute speech that was, by far, his most pugnacious.
Edwards must go in the election slated for October, Barras said. But more important is for Republicans to protect the GOP majority in the House and shoot for a supermajority.
"We need it badly, especially if by some fluke of the system, this governor gets elected for another four years," Barras said.
Maybe his fierce partisan words came because of his audience — the red, white and blue-clad GOP activists cheering for a wall and booing every mention of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic progressive from the Bronx. Or it could have been because he’s term-limited and going into his final year in the Louisiana House. (He said he has no plans to run this fall for the state Senate.)
Or it could be that Barras had tired at being beat up for refusing to go along with new revenue projections that would allow state government to pay for services that had been cut because of a lack of money.
Barras said that with a GOP supermajority in the House and/or a Republican sitting in the governor’s office on the fourth floor of the State Capitol, the Affordable Care Act, or more specifically the Medicaid expansion part of it, will finally be emasculated.
Tension between the white Republicans who want to rein in the cost of Medicaid, the state’s largest single expenditure, and the black Democrats who want to protect health care services was at the root of legislative budget paralysis over the past three years.
Republican legislators have never made a serious attempt to overturn Edwards’ executive order, enacted days after taking his oath of office in January 2016, that changed definitions and allowed those making too much money to qualify for Medicaid but too little to buy private insurance, to join the state-federal health insurance plan. Democratic representatives beat back repeated Republican efforts to tinker with Medicaid calling the GOP fixes for “inefficiencies,” like work requirements and fraud investigations, ways to limit access.
Democrats are the minority, with 32 representatives, but have enough votes to stymie the Medicaid actions GOP legislators had hoped to use to mitigate tax increases.
Barras points out that about half of the state’s $34 billion budget comes from the federal government, mostly in the form of Medicaid reimbursements, and should that money go away, the state would be unable to cover Medicaid expenses without raising taxes.
As part of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, the federal government picked up nearly every penny of the costs for covering the working poor with Medicaid. But starting in 2020, state government will have to pay 10 percent of the costs for those in the expanded Medicaid population. The federal government will be sending Louisiana money from taxpayers in other states to fund the remaining 90 percent of the costs.
Republicans failed even though Edwards is the only Democrat elected statewide in a government that is dominated by the GOP.
Republicans are 11 seats shy of the 70-vote supermajority they would need to ignore Democrats in the 105-member Louisiana House of Representatives. Seven seats vacated by reps elected to different jobs will be decided on Feb. 23. Then come the fall, all the seats are up for election, including five that are held by Democrats in districts that strongly supported Republican President Donald Trump.
Barras is proposing Louisiana follow the national trend of electing supermajorities to pass policy without having to worry about minority positions.
Governing, a national magazine published in Washington, D.C. that covers state and local government policies, counted 31 states in which Republicans control the legislatures and 18 where Democrats were the sole authorities. For the first time since 1914, only one state had a bipartisan assembly.