The contest for governor is this fall’s big show, but this is also a good election season for voters to spend some considering the downballot races. Gov. John Bel Edwards may or may not return to the Capitol in January, but this much is certain: the Legislature that convenes in 2020 will look very different from the last one.
Blame the coming disruption on several factors, including legislator fatigue from having suffered through 11 regular and special sessions in four years. But more than anything, blame it on the legislative term limits.
According to the constitutional amendment approved in 1995, everyone in the House and Senate got to run for three four-year terms, starting then. Twelve years later, in 2007, came the first big displacement, with many senators termed out and quite a few representatives who were forced from their seats moving over to the Senate. Now, 12 years after that, the second wave is about to hit.
That translates into 31 of 105 current House members ineligible to run for reelection, along with 16 of 39 senators. The list of politicians heading home features some of the Legislature’s most prominent figures, including Senate President John Alario and House Speaker Taylor Barras. Joining them are still more who chose not to return. So voters across the state will get the chance to choose an awful lot of new legislators to serve the next four years.
Some of these elections promise to be barnburners featuring more than one well-known name. In Baton Rouge alone, state Rep. Pat Smith will battle former U.S. Rep. Cleo Fields for one Senate seat, and state Reps. Franklin Foil and Stephen Carter will compete for another. There will also be larger subplots, including a concerted effort by the group Emerge Louisiana to elect more Democratic women to a Legislature that trails most of the nation in female representation.
But this isn’t just about personality or gender politics. The next Legislature will have a loud say in some important issues facing Louisiana. It will decide whether teachers should get another pay raise, and whether more money should go to early childhood education. It will determine whether Edwards, should he win reelection, can finally raise the state minimum wage. It could tackle long-running challenges such as tax reform and infrastructure funding, and finally allow sports betting to come to Louisiana. Following the 2020 Census, it will draw new district lines that will help determine who gets elected for a decade to come.
Term limits have plenty of downsides, including the loss of institutional knowledge, but they also offer voters a chance to really consider which direction they want their government to go. The Oct. 12 election could be a rare opportunity to put their priorities into action — as long as they’re willing to learn enough to treat it that way.