House Speaker Taylor Barras owes his title to the fact that he’s not Cameron Henry, the Metairie state representative who once wanted the job.
The New Iberia Republican emerged in 2016 as a compromise choice after neither Henry, who was generally seen as a confrontational GOP partisan, nor Walt Leger, Jr., a Democrat who had the support of Gov. John Bel Edwards to lead the majority-Republican chamber, could corral enough votes. Barras was a former Democrat, a genteel banker who appealed to a key block of moderate Republicans who worried that Henry would be too divisive.
Three years later, though, it’s getting harder to see much of a difference between Barras and Henry.
Or maybe the better comparison is to Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate majority leader who once said that his main goal was to see that Barack Obama was a one-term president. Among McConnell’s most nakedly partisan moves was his refusal to schedule confirmation proceedings for Merrick Garland, Obama’s final U.S. Supreme Court nominee.
Barras sure seemed to be channeling McConnell when he spoke last month at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. He told the crowd that his goal in the fall legislative elections is to give the party a supermajority of 70 members, enough to control legislation on taxes and certain other matters without any Democratic support.
"We need it badly, especially if by some fluke of the system, this governor gets elected for another four years," Barras said.
Now, let’s pause here to unpack that statement.
That “fluke of the system” Barras described would be a vote of the people. Edwards, a Democrat in a generally Republican-leaning state, will be reelected if a majority of the voters who show up next fall want him to be, if they like what he did in the last four years and support what he wants to do in the next four. Barras’ suggestion is that, even should they make that choice, the Legislature should be positioned not to work with him but around him. Kind of like McConnell did with twice-elected Obama.
It would also undermine the Louisiana Legislature’s long and productive tradition of encouraging coalitions on individual issues that cross party lines, which was supposed to be the idea behind substituting Barras for Henry as speaker in the first place.
I’d be tempted to chalk up this one speech to Barras playing to his particular audience that day, if it weren’t for the fact that he’s been heading down a similar path lately on a major substantive matter.
Barras has basically hijacked the Revenue Estimating Conference, a panel that was set up to take the politics out of income forecasting, by refusing to accept projections from independent economists on how much money Louisiana can expect to collect for rest of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and for next year.
Technically, Barras has the right to do that. The speaker gets one of four votes to accept the projections, along with an Edwards designee, Senate President John Alario and LSU economist Jim Richardson. Because votes must be unanimous, any one member of the group can throw a wrench in things. And indeed, the first person to do so was Henry, who appeared at a November meeting in Barras’ stead. Barras has since shown up several times and doubled down, so at this point, he owns the cynical power play.
What this means in the near term is that some money the Legislature allocated for this year can’t be spent, and that Edwards’ proposed budget for the next year can’t include the best estimates of income. What it means in the longer term is that one more corner of state government has now been infected by Washington-style dysfunctional partisanship.
That won’t be Barras’ problem for long, as he’s term-limited and cannot run for reelection this fall. But what a sorry legacy he’s preparing to leave.