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Wednesday, January 29, 2020



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Analysis: Louisiana Legislature grapples with independence

Analysis: Louisiana Legislature grapples with independence


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana state lawmakers are more aggressively asserting their independence from the state's governor, particularly in their leadership decisions, finally leaning into the constitutional separation of powers that had always existed on paper if not in actual practice.

Still, while legislators promote their bucking of a tradition that once had a governor handpicking the House speaker and Senate president, they haven't freed themselves from other outside meddling. Campaign donors, elected officials, lobbying groups and others are making their thoughts about leadership decisions known as lawmakers jockey for positions behind closed doors.

"Just because you're independent of the governor doesn't mean you're independent of third-party groups that stand outside the rails and really weigh in on what everybody's doing and how they're operating," Sen. Rick Ward, a Port Allen Republican told a GOP luncheon crowd.

The House and Senate elect their new leaders when the latest term starts Jan. 13. The House speaker and Senate president choose committee chairmen, make committee assignments and set the calendar. Those decisions can determine whether bills pass or fail.

In a political quirk unique to Louisiana, governors historically had a heavy hand in choosing who led the House and Senate, often announcing who would be in charge before a legislative vote was even taken. In some instances, lawmakers not only allowed governors to choose the speaker and president, but also to anoint committee chairmen and dictate the removal of lawmakers from leadership jobs if they didn't fall in line with a governor's agenda.

Those days appear to be over — at least while Democrat John Bel Edwards is in the governor's office and the House and Senate are overwhelmingly packed with Republicans.

The majority-GOP House proclaimed its independence from Edwards last term, when it refused in 2016 to back the governor's pick of Democratic Rep. Walt Leger of New Orleans to be speaker. Instead, a last-minute GOP deal led to the election of New Iberia Republican Taylor Barras as speaker. That rebuke to Edwards sparked a four-year battle between the governor and the House Republican leadership over taxes and spending.

Meanwhile, the Senate kept Republican John Alario as president. While Edwards may not have directly christened Alario for the job, the governor had no objections since Alario had proven to work with governors in his long tenure. Indeed, Alario willingly crafted committees to help Edwards' agenda in the Senate and became one of Edwards' close allies.

Ahead of Edwards' second term, the Senate joined the House in sidelining Edwards from the leadership decision-making. Republican Sen. Page Cortez, a business owner from Lafayette, appears to have locked up the votes needed to be Senate president without Edwards' involvement.

The House again is keeping Edwards at arms length in behind-the-scenes negotiating over its top job. But no contender for House speaker so far appears to have reached the majority support to win the position.

Republican Rep. Sherman Mack, a lawyer from Albany, is the leading contender. He received a majority of GOP lawmakers' backing in a closed-door vote. But it remains unclear if Republicans will rally around him and assure him a victory. If the chamber's 68 Republicans vote as a bloc, they could decide the speaker in the 105-member chamber without Democrats.

Before the House GOP's vote for Mack, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and Attorney General Jeff Landry sent Republican House members a letter suggesting they should unite behind whichever candidate won that balloting, to keep Democrats from having a say in the leadership job. Kennedy and Landry oversee a PAC that helped elect many Republican members of the state House and Senate.

"If you're going to run as a Republican, if you're going to get up on the ballot and wear the party label, you have to be able to act like a Republican," Landry said.

Beyond Kennedy and Landry, lawmakers say they've received calls and communication from other elected officials, lobbying groups and campaign donors who want to help sway the outcome of the House speaker's race.

Ward, who had been vying to be Senate president but said he now supports Cortez, told the GOP luncheon crowd: "We just need to really be careful. You don't want to exchange being beholden to one thing for just another and then try and call it independence."

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte