Now that the current incarnation of the Louisiana Legislature has closed the books on its four-year-term, it’s easy to pinpoint the single most consequential policy vote: An agreement, after three years of fighting, to temporarily raise state sales taxes by 9/20 of a penny. The 2018 measure finally pointed the state away from the fiscal cliff and paved the way for such long-delayed investments as this year’s $1,000 teacher pay raise.
As hotly debated and desperately needed as that move was, though, it was only the second-most important vote of the term. The first came more than two years earlier, even before Gov. John Bel Edwards had been sworn in to his concurrent term, when the state House rejected Edwards’ pick to be the chamber’s speaker.
That the governor should have any say in legislative leadership is an oddity of Louisiana’s political tradition. Yet Edwards was following a well-worn path when he put the weight of his office behind state Rep. Walt Leger III, a respected New Orleans lawmaker but a fellow Democrat, to lead a house that was majority Republican.
Under intense pressure, moderate House Republicans balked over the choice, and Leger wasn’t able to cobble together enough votes. Notably, nor was state Rep. Cameron Henry of neighboring Jefferson Parish, a onetime aide to U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise and a favorite of the party’s more partisan wing.
So a compromise was hatched: Republicans rallied behind a gentlemanly, little-known former Democrat from New Iberia, Taylor Barras. And thus the adventure in relative legislative independence began.
Four years in, it’s possible to look back and judge the result.
For one thing, despite Barras’ ascent, the Henry-aligned forces were still able to set the tone. Henry won a sweet consolation prize in chairmanship of an Appropriations Committee stacked with allies, which gave him a major role in setting — and limiting — how Louisiana would spend money. A Democrat got the chairmanship of the other major money committee, which on the surface passed for a nod to the Legislature’s traditional non-partisanship. But it wasn’t just any Democrat; it was Neil Abramson of New Orleans, the one Democrat who had tipped his hand by not backing Leger in the second round of leadership voting, the one in which Barras prevailed.
The effect was also visible on the Labor Committee, which had a Democratic chairman, Patrick Jefferson of Homer, but a conservative majority that was never going to pass some key Edwards priorities, including legislation to raise the state minimum wage and to minimize pay inequities between men and women.
More broadly, even some moderate Republicans complained that the people who controlled the House were driven by a deep desire to deprive Edwards of wins he could claim in his reelection campaign, and a number of them resigned mid-term in frustration over the culture of intransigence. Edwards, meanwhile, labeled the dominant faction the “caucus of no.”
It’s also possible to compare how the House functioned to how it might have worked under Leger by looking at the Senate. Here, lawmakers chose veteran state Sen. John Alario, a Westwego lawmaker who had already served as House speaker and Senate president, and who easily won loyalty from his Republican-majority members despite Edwards’ support — not to mention a philosophy that positioned him as someone who should give the governor’s agenda a good chance at passing.
Although it’s clearly more functional, it’s Alario-style politics that’s likely waning in Baton Rouge. For one thing, he and many fellow senators are facing term limits, so they won’t be back next year. And with many House members likely to move over the Senate, the trend lines are obvious.
So one way to look back to that all-important House leadership vote in January, 2016 is to view it as an experiment, a chance to see how government would work if the Legislature asserted its independence and became more partisan.
The more realistic way, probably, is as a sign of things to come. Like it or not.
Editor's Note: This column originally said that Neil Abramson was the only Democrat who did not back Walt Leger III for speaker in the first round of voting. It's been corrected to say that he was the only one who did not back Leger in the second vote, the one in which Taylor Barras prevailed.