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Representative Lance Harris (R), right, embraces Representative Vincent Pierre (D) on the floor before legislative session ends sine die, Thursday, June 6, 2019, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.

The iconic image of this class of legislators who finished their last session Thursday evening was how they finished their first: charging the podium in a scrum to pass $1 billion of temporary taxes that would expire and set up another crisis in 2018.

It brought tears to the eyes of Senate President John Alario, a 48-year legislative veteran and Republican from Westwego.

The idea was to give lawmakers time to fix Louisiana’s fiscal system, which gave away too much in tax breaks and left the state budget in a near annual deficit. None of those changes happened.

This class took office in January 2016, and most will run for reelection this fall. Lawmakers came to the State Capitol after winning 2015 elections on “Blame Bobby” platforms that held Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal responsible for a host of financial problems even though many incumbents backed those policies.

The first act of the Republican majority House was to buck tradition and name its own speaker, GOP Rep. Taylor Barras, of New Iberia, rather than endorse the choice of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.

This was the class that saw a senator resign ahead of his expulsion; caught international attention with a proposal setting age and weight requirements for strippers; exposed racial animosities in trying to protect Confederate monuments and curtail Medicaid coverage.

Twenty-four of the 144 legislators, an unprecedented number, left the Legislature during the four-year term.

The tone of debate was less Daniel Webster-like “new day that's every day” persuasion and more Exorcist-like “the power of Christ compels you” shouts at each other. Many left Baton Rouge spitting venom about colleagues who held fast to their rhetoric.

The rancor came from repetitive resistance rather than discussions about what’s best for the state, said Democratic state Rep. Sam Jones, of Franklin: “Maybe that’s a good thing. A lot of people left angry, but they left without knives dripping.”

“The debate has been spirited,” House Majority Leader Lance Harris agreed, banging his fists together with a chuckle.

But that is the point. Gather people with different opinions, different life experiences and let them hammer out solutions to difficult problems that all of society can live with, he said.

You can’t just call your uncle crazy and leave the dinner table. “It’s our job to stay here and work these things out,” Harris told The Advocate.

Much of what colored the 2016-2020 class was the House’s independence, said Harris, who if reelected from his Alexandria district plans to run for speaker of the incoming class next year.

With the exception of Edwin Edwards’ final year and Huey Long’s first, this Legislature was the first that didn’t kowtow to the governor since the first assemblée in 1812.

Though it took time to work through the differences of opinion, Harris said, “this class of the independent House has been a good thing for the taxpayers in this state.” Tax increases could have been a lot larger.

And the class was not devoid of accomplishments. It came together long enough in 2017 to pass the sweeping Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act that started reversing the lock ‘em-up lurch of the 1980s and 1990s.

State Rep. Randal Gaines, the LaPlace Democrat who heads the Legislative Black Caucus, credits the majority, after much hand-wringing, for choosing to address the reality of the state’s financial situation even its members were elected on promises of less taxes and smaller government. “Their willingness to pass revenue measures that were necessary, this was monumental,” Gaines said.

“I’ll summarize the fierce debate, in just a line or two,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne wrote in a poem he read to the state Senate upon adjournment. “It all came down to just one vote, Be ye red or be ye blue.”

And that was the June 24, 2018, vote on a compromise put together by rookie legislators that raised about $463 million to keep the state from falling off a fiscal cliff and stabilized finances by setting the state sales tax at 4.45 cents on every dollar until July 1, 2024.

The compromise went a long way to ease tensions.

In this session that ended Thursday, first-term state Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, along with second-term state Sen. Rick Ward III, R-Port Allen, put together a package of massive road and bridge improvements for the first time in 30 years, using $700 million in settlement monies from the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

“We’re suffering down here. But when we have respectful debate, we have gained, and we have become better persons because of it,” Harris told his colleagues as they headed home Thursday night.

Alario presented Harris, an accomplished church musician, with a collection of music on a CD called “Lance ‘Conway Twitty’ Harris.” The first song was “We are Family.”


Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.