Earlier this month, I wrote a column predicting that, while Louisiana’s House of Representatives is clearly turning more partisan, Baton Rouge is still a long way from Washington.
Do I have to eat my words already?
We’ll see once lawmakers convene in a couple of weeks, but the first real signal out of new House Speaker Taylor Barras doesn’t bode well for the sort of bipartisanship that just about everyone here, in theory, claims to support.
Barras’ election itself was a compromise, after the majority-GOP House rejected the bid of fellow Republican Cameron Henry, who is generally considered more of a partisan warrior. Gov. John Bel Edwards had backed fellow Democrat Walt Leger, but he too fell short. Barras, whose profile was far lower than either of the other major contenders, emerged as the guy who could satisfy the Republicans’ yearning for independence but still work with the governor.
When Barras finally announced his committee assignments late last week, though, he practically threw down the gauntlet.
Republicans will lead 12 of the House’s 16 standing committees. That’s more balanced than the U.S. House, where the majority controls all committee chairmanships, but far less evenly split than during last term, when former Gov. Bobby Jindal was single-mindedly focused on building a true blue conservative track record to sell out on the presidential trail. Six Democrats served as committee leaders during Jindal’s last four years.
One of the biggest plums went to Henry, who backed Barras’ bid after he finished in third place during the first round of voting and who helped Barras divvy up the spoils.
The Metairie legislator will head the Appropriations Committee, an assignment that sets him up as a potentially powerful adversary to Edwards as they contend with daunting budget shortfalls for this year and next. Henry should get plenty of support from his peers; Republicans on the committee outnumber Democrats by nearly 3-1.
Barras can claim he took a bipartisan approach in naming Neil Abramson chairman of the other powerful money committee, Ways and Means, but there’s more to this story than simple party designation. Abramson launched a failed bid for speaker himself, invoking the ire of his fellow New Orleans Democrats who supported Leger, another one of their own and the choice of their party’s new governor. He then crossed the aisle and backed Barras in the head-to-head runoff against Leger, who was then elected to the much less powerful role of speaker pro tem. Abramson’s behavior drew a rebuke from the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee and much grumbling from other Democratic lawmakers. So don’t expect him to emerge as the Democrats’ point person or to carry Edwards’ water.
Nor should the Labor Committee offer much support for the governor’s agenda, which includes a bid to raise the state minimum wage by $1.25, despite the fact that Democrat Patrick Jefferson was named chairman. The Homer lawmaker will oversee a panel where Republicans hold a majority of slots.
Barras’ approach turned out to be pretty much the opposite of Senate President John Alario’s. Alario, who was re-elected to the top leadership post without opposition, also heads a Republican-majority chamber. But he doled out assignments with an eye toward at least giving the new governor’s agenda a chance, something he thinks the voters who overwhelmingly elected Edwards want. To that end, both money committees in the Senate are headed by Democrats. And while the Labor Committee is led by a Republican, a majority of the seats are held by Democrats.
So in addition to inevitable conflict between the House and the administration, look for some testy times between the House and Senate.
The one big question is whether the same sort of division will emerge within the House’s Republican caucus. As I noted when I made my earlier prediction, many members rejected Henry out of apparent fear that he wouldn’t work with the governor to solve problems. This included some rookies and also veterans who were visibly frustrated they weren’t able to tackle systemic problems back when Jindal dictated the terms.
Those problems remain, and they are daunting. And if anyone thinks the answers lie in following the lead of Washington, well, they’re in for a rude awakening.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.