Ask just about anybody at the State Capitol, and they’ll tell you Taylor Barras is one of the nicest guys in the Legislature.
The outgoing speaker of the House proved that anew with a farewell speech graciously thanking the staff of the chamber, including many who rarely get a shout-out from leadership.
What a nice guy. But unfortunately, he's been a failure in many ways as speaker, and one who left the House as an institution in far worse shape than he found it.
The budget process is a mess, and Barras bears a large share of the responsibility. Some of that is direct and personal, because as a member of the numbers-crunching Revenue Estimating Conference, he blocked ordinary and reasonable budget forecasts in recent months.
When you give a political figure a veto over state budgets, by requiring that committee decisions be made unanimous, there ought to be a very …
The votes in the four-member REC must be unanimous. That rule was created so those in charge of the budget would not inflate it with phony money. The rule isn't there to make policy but to arrive at a reasonable revenue number. By misusing his vote to advance a partisan agenda, Barras recklessly politicized one of the most important budget reforms of the past few decades.
That bad decision gives some insight into the reasons for Barras’ poor results as speaker. The New Iberia banker was a compromise candidate, when the more hard-right conservatives in the House GOP could not put over Cameron Henry, of Metairie.
That Barras was elected was a feat in 2016, since newly elected Gov. John Bel Edwards had another candidate, Walt Leger, a very able fellow Democrat from New Orleans. But the price of the job for Barras was too high, as Henry and others led the speaker to pack the key “money” committees in the House with their supporters.
Their collision course with Edwards, and the Republican-led Senate, and Republican state budget chief Jay Dardenne, too, underlined Barras’ helplessness, as he himself was a former Democrat and presumably, a business-oriented moderate by temperament.
The haggling at the Capitol last week leading up to a prospective tax deal was grounded in a basic reality of legislative politics in Baton Ro…
Barras’ historic ascent might have enabled a transition toward a new and better way of running the Legislature. He fumbled the opportunity.
Instead, he empowered a caucus-led House where party became more important than process. Politics — above all, not agreeing with Edwards — was even more pernicious in the House. The rules became obstructions to the legislative process.
Barras was not the sole reason for the chaos of some 18 months of almost continuous budget sessions. Too many GOP members, like him temperamentally of the center-right, were browbeaten by the leadership on the hard right. Instead of open debate, the speaker all too often intoned that “the House will stand at ease,” and GOP members went behind closed doors to be whipped into the party line.
Sometimes, in key votes, a majority of House members, including some Republicans, bucked the Barras leadership team, if one can call it that. But compromise was typically achieved not because of the speaker but in spite of him. Members were driven to exhaustion by the anti-government agenda of the few; outside pressure groups of the right made members anxious about their standing back home; some couldn’t afford financially to stay in session, but simply had to find a way to halfway balance the books and get out of town.
Senators of both parties, organized by a true master of the legislative arts, John Alario of Westwego, were frustrated during Barras’ tenure. The governor, genuinely fond of Barras as a person, was exasperated by promises of the speaker not fulfilled and budget deals gone bust. The agenda was not set by the speaker but his reliance on a caucus leadership that was more hard line than the body of the House.
Barras left because of term limits; Henry is seeking a Jefferson Parish seat in the Senate for the same reason. But given the historic nature of Barras’ election in 2016, upsetting time-honored calculations of the power of the governor’s office, the nice man sitting high above the House became a disappointment in an office that he worked hard at.
Is this the pattern of the House in future?
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.