Republicans notched several important legislative victories in the regular session and in the special session that ended Tuesday, showing they can muster the votes to pass measures favored by the state’s powerful business interests.
Yet the two sessions also showed that Republicans can achieve only so much because the veto pen wielded by Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, served an impregnable line of defense that Republicans could not break. The governor can claim fewer victories than the Republicans this year, but he limited their agenda.
Republicans directed $275 million in federal money to small businesses, passed a slew of tax breaks for business and approved changes in how car accident victims can file lawsuits with the claim that this will reduce insurance rates. But in each case, Edwards kept them from going farther.
The two sides agreed to use $1 billion in federal money to minimize spending cuts to the $35 billion state budget, and they also came together to approve a one-time $250 payment to people who held front-line jobs during the worst of the pandemic.
“His threat of the veto caused them to realize that if they wanted to pass something, they had to work with him,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a veteran pollster and political consultant. “The threat of the veto contributed to their willingness to sit down and negotiate something he would sign.”
In other words, both sides showed a clear-eyed understanding that, despite the increasing partisan nature of politics in Baton Rouge, divided government will require compromise to get things done. That lesson will likely inform future debates, especially next year when Republican leaders and Edwards must come together to redraw district boundaries for legislators and members of the U.S. House.
Edwards can veto whatever legislators devise.
After narrowly defeating Republican businessman Eddie Rispone last year to win re-election, Edwards entered the legislative session with a modest agenda that wouldn’t raise conservative hackles.
On the session’s first day on March 9, Edwards announced the state’s first coronavirus infection. Legislators recessed a week later. When they reconvened on May 4, the collapsing economy forced Edwards immediately to ditch plans to use budget surpluses to provide more money for teachers, K-12 schools and colleges and universities. From then on, Edwards had to play defense.
Republicans, meanwhile, moved forward with a series of bills backed by the powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which had worked with wealthy businessmen to elect the most conservative Republican Legislature ever. Republicans held 68 seats in the 105-member House and 27 in the 39-member Senate. The death of state Rep. Reggie Bagala, R-Cut Off, cast a pall over the proceedings and reduced the Republican delegation to 67.
They would need 70 votes in the House and 26 in the Senate to reach the two-thirds threshold to override Edwards.
No one was sure whether he could count on enough support in the Legislature to prevent an override of any Republican bill he couldn’t stomach.
On the final day of the regular session, Republicans passed LABI’s chief priority, a measure to limit payouts to car wreck victims and their lawyers, with the promise – strongly disputed by Democrats and also some Republicans – that it would lower insurance rates by 10% to 25%.
Edwards, a strong ally of trial lawyers, vetoed the measure, saying “it is neither a compromise nor a mandate to decrease auto insurance rates in Louisiana.”
To give themselves a chance to override the veto, Republicans called themselves into a special session beginning on June 1, marking only for the second time where lawmakers, rather than the governor, called themselves in to a special session.
Exemplifying their independence, Republicans insisted on carving $275 million in grants for small business out of $811 million that Congress sent to Louisiana to reimburse local governments for coronavirus-related costs. Edwards objected to the bill but signed it nonetheless. In turn, Republicans agreed to a $50 million initiative by state Rep. Sam Jenkins, D-Shreveport, to make a one-time payment of $250 apiece to front-line workers during the pandemic who earned less than $50,000.
Besides the car insurance bill, Edwards vetoed eight other measures passed during the regular session.
To mount an override, the GOP leadership would need all but one of the 27 Republicans in the Senate to maintain strict party discipline and pull over three to five Democrats in the House, depending on how the two independents voted. Only twice before in Louisiana history – and not since 1993 – had legislators taken the far-reaching step of overriding a governor.
“It’s the ultimate declaration of loyalty or disloyalty,” said Norby Chabert, a Republican from Houma who served three terms in the Senate before term limits last year forced his retirement.
Behind the scenes, Edwards and Matthew Block, his executive counsel, met repeatedly with key Republicans, to try to find common ground, with the unspoken understanding that the governor can reward and punish through whom he appoints to dozens of boards and commissions and which spending programs get his go-ahead and when. Democrats held firm behind the governor.
As a result, despite some tough-sounding talk, Republicans could not muster the necessary votes for an override.
After much effort, Republicans did pass another car insurance bill on Tuesday. But by limiting its reach through negotiations with Edwards, they won the governor’s pledge to sign it into law.
House Bill 57 makes sweeping technical changes to evidence and procedure laws that business and insurance industry interests say will shrink the number of injury court cases and reduce Louisiana’s perennially high car insurance rates. But it didn’t go as far as the bill that Edwards vetoed. For example, it will allow a trial attorney to mention the name of the defendants’ insurance company during opening and closing statements. Business interests wanted no mention of the insurance company at all.
“Today was a victory for common sense and the clear beginning of a new era in the Legislature focused on passing sensible solutions to improve Louisiana's legal climate,” Stephen Waguespack, LABI’s president and CEO, said in a statement praising the bill’s passage. “HB57 is a strong first step for Louisiana's working families and job creators that will help begin the process of rebuilding Louisiana's insurance markets.”
J. Cullens, a Baton Rouge-based trial attorney who is president of the Louisiana Association for Justice, said HB57 “is not good for victims of traffic accidents and other people who have to go to court. It will delay everyone getting a date to go to trial.”
But Cullens does not fault Edwards for signing the bill, saying, “It was a reasonable compromise from his perspective, given the real and obvious political realities in Louisiana. That doesn’t mean I’ll celebrate the compromise.”
In his statement, Waguespack said LABI will seek more changes to what he described as “Louisiana's reputation for a poor legal climate. HB57 appears to be simply the first bite at that apple. Our work has only just begun.”
Any future push by legislators to further limit the rights of accident victims and their attorneys will likely face Edwards’ opposition.
But the biggest topic ahead that will likely produce disagreement between Edwards and Republican lawmakers will be the redistricting process that occurs every 10 years.
Next year, legislators will draw up their own version of new congressional and legislative lines, with an eye to giving Republicans a strong chance of winning two-thirds majorities in both the Louisiana House and the Senate in the 2023 elections. Edwards will want to deny that or even allow Democrats to shrink the current Republican numerical advantages.
“They can’t just pass anything they want,” Pinsonat said of the Republicans. “They know he’ll veto it. That threat is real. They can’t just run over him.”
John Alario, who served two terms as House speaker as a Democrat and two terms as Senate president as a Republican before term limits last year sidelined him, said Edwards will play a major role in whatever the Legislature decides.
“If Democrats are not satisfied, they have a great friend in the Governor’s Mansion and can hold their numbers together,” Alario said.