Louisiana lawmakers used to follow the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s maxim that all politics is local. No longer. Our Legislature now seems hyper-focused on divisive issues and riven by partisanship, just like up in the nation's capital.
As the 2023 legislative session passed the halfway mark, columnists Lanny Keller, Stephanie Grace and Clancy DuBos sat down to discuss the big question that could define this year’s session — and future sessions: Is Washington-style politics the new ‘Louisiana Way?'
How Louisiana politics use to be
Clancy DuBos: Let’s start by defining the way we were, and then look at how we got from there to here.
Stephanie Grace: Louisiana was a place where — unlike Congress and most other state legislatures, which are organized along strict party lines — the Legislature has not been organized by party. We sometimes had a majority of one party in the House or Senate, but the leader of that chamber was from the other party. That kept things from being so structurally partisan. Coalitions developed around issues.
Lanny Keller: Gov. Kathleen Blanco always said she preferred that old Louisiana style, because it focused on issues and not on preconceived party positions. She thought that led to more thoughtful legislating. Cynics might say that’s because she was governor, and the governor was in charge.
Grace: There's been an age-old debate about legislative independence in Louisiana. Traditionally, the governor gets elected and decides, not officially but basically, who's the House speaker and who's the Senate president. That created a system where the divisions are not necessarily Democrat or Republican, but with-the-governor or against-the-governor.
DuBos: That’s the way it was for generations, going back to Huey Long, whose legacy was his style of governing. The strong executive, with the Legislature bending to the governor’s will, became the accepted way in Louisiana. And that's just the way it was — until it wasn't.
When, how things changed
Grace: One of the reasons it isn't as much, or at all, anymore is because the push for legislative independence paralleled the rise of the Republican Party as a strong entity. It all came to a head when Democrat John Bel Edwards became governor. Edwards did what every other governor had done — he chose his candidate for House speaker. Walt Leger III was respected and well-liked, but he was a Democrat, and that was not going to fly. So, we ended up with the first example in modern times of the Legislature saying from the outset, “No, we're independent. We're going to pick our own leadership.” And it coincided with this national movement toward partisanship.
Keller: It also came at a time when the Republican Party was not your grandfather's GOP — that of the gentlemanly days of George H.W. Bush. The party is more ideological than it has been in many years. That influences state politics, too.
Grace: I think it's one of the reasons we have bills going through our Legislature that are the same bills going through other conservative legislatures. There is this nationalized agenda, even on local issues, like libraries. I mean, what's more local than libraries? Except, what's happening in Lafayette is happening in other counties and towns across the country.
DuBos: It's a cookie-cutter approach to legislating. We’re seeing bills in Louisiana that very much resemble those in Florida, Texas, and other states that are embarking on these culture wars, whether it's libraries and books, anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans rights, what teachers can say in classrooms.
'All politics is national'
Grace: These days, it feels like all politics is national. It really does.
DuBos: How many times in the past did we hear Louisiana legislators say, “We don't use Washington-style politics down here”? We don’t hear that anymore.
Keller: And while they won't say this in public, many House members are uncomfortable with that. They feel, to some extent, that the tail is wagging the dog. We also know that, while they may not be overt about it, big business and many of Louisiana's largest employers are extremely nervous about this sort of agenda dominating the discussion in the statehouse. Yet the leadership often gets 70 or 72 votes — two-thirds of the House — for controversial bills. That's a sign that the party has come together around those issues, whether they are uncomfortable with the way it is being done or not.
DuBos: I'm wondering if they feel pressured to get in line.
Grace: I'm hearing “Washington” when the two of you talk about that, because that's what's happening in Congress. We know there are people who are uncomfortable with some of the things that their party is doing, and yet they tend to go along, including big businesses.
Keller: Yes, but a huge component of what legislators do is not necessarily a social agenda, it's the routine business of deciding what to spend money on. Even that’s a flashpoint at this midpoint of the current session.
The two sides
DuBos: Is it a Democrat-Republican fight, or is it more the House versus the Senate?
Keller: It’s clear that the Senate is more closely aligned with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ view of the budget than it is with the House’s view of the budget, which by the way, blew past 72 votes in passing. That’s a magic, as in veto-proof, number even though the Senate is just as Republican in terms of having a two-thirds majority.
DuBos: What's interesting is the Senate being aligned with the governor on the budget may be the one thing from the old days that still holds true. Governors almost always have more sway in the Senate, where you only need 20 votes to control it. In the House, you need 53 votes to control things.
Keller: Also, Senate districts are larger, particularly in the Republican areas of north Louisiana. You might have three or four parish governments and school boards, and dozens of town councils in each Senate district. Those are important influences that create an inherent pressure for moderation on senators when it comes to spending money. They need to bring home the bacon.
Grace: And if House members expect that kind of moderation from the Senate, they can vote for something even if they don't think it's a great idea. They can take an ideological stand, knowing that the Senate will come behind them and fix things.
Keller: Let’s also remember that this is an election year. For the new members of the House, this is the first time they're walking around saying, “Oh, what have I done in the last four years that I can bring back to my people?” That's a huge element, but there's also a combination of factors that play into an election year, including an open seat for governor. Several candidates for governor are legislators. There’s a certain degree of looking ahead to the voters that may make the fights more bitter, because the stakes are now so large. There also are term-limited members and legislative leaders who are looking at statewide office, including the Speaker of the House. Many individual members of the Legislature, for the first time, now have to face their voters again, and voters are saying, “What have you done for me lately?”
Budget battle lines
DuBos: So, let's look at the battle lines in the House and Senate regarding the budget.
Keller: What the House has proposed is a radically different vision of how to spend the unusual amount of money that the state has this year. I don't know that the House plan is going to fly, but it is a way in which the House is asserting itself. The Senate is not in consonance with that, and perhaps it is amenable to compromise. We'll just have to see over the next few weeks.
DuBos: One glaring example of disagreement is teacher pay raises. That was one of the centerpieces of John Bel Edwards’ speech.
Keller: He is, among other things, married to a teacher and is very sensitive to these issues. And one of the lessons of this budget debate has been if you're going to reject the governor's proposals, then come forward with a coherent plan — and the numbers need to add up. Because this governor in particular has a very capable budget chief in Jay Dardenne. There's some question as to whether the House numbers add up. For one thing, new things like charter schools are left out of the pay raise picture as I perceive it right now. Well, charter schools were largely a Republican policy issue.
Grace: One thing they want to do with some of this extra money is pay down teacher pension debt. But many charter schools aren't in the state pension system.
Keller: I think the point of that lesson is that it's not pure ideology that gets you somewhere in a legislative body. It's knowing the details. We’re now at the midpoint, where the details have become very, very important to this debate. I think maybe we will look back at this session as one in which the aggressive new Republican majority in the House may have overreached because it failed to nail all the numbers.
DuBos: Another way to look at it, perhaps — and this is true of all super-majorities — is once the “outs” become the “ins,” they start to fight amongst themselves.
Grace: It's the big tent problem. If you're in the Republican big tent, you have very socially conservative people, very libertarian people, and moderates — the people who focus more on business and economic development, which is the traditional Republican view.
John Bel Edwards' power
Keller: Another overarching electoral issue is that, while the Republicans may set themselves up in opposition to John Bel Edwards, the fact is that Edwards leaves office quite popular. Yes, he’s a lame duck, but he's a lame duck who many voters feel has done a pretty darn good job.
DuBos: And he's not afraid to wield the veto pen.
Keller: It’s a challenge: When you have a governor with a great deal of power, any legislative body is never really going to be independent. It's just the nature of the beast. So, what is this legislature’s agenda for Louisiana, with all these social policy bills and changes in the budget that might favor one particular group? It’s kind of a rural vision of our state — Alabama with better restaurants. Are Louisiana voters going to buy that?
Grace: And even where it's not rural, it’s not New Orleans. Capital “N” — Not New Orleans. That's a big change. In John Bel Edwards’ first term, we had John Alario, who was the master of the Senate, Cameron Henry chairing the House Appropriations Committee, Neil Abramson chairing House Ways and Means, and JP Morrell chairing the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, all from New Orleans or Jefferson Parish. In this Legislature, there’s really nobody from New Orleans in the leadership structure and very few committee chairs from anywhere in the metro area.
DuBos: We’re also seeing a striking difference in the policies that get approved. We’re seeing bills dealing with educational curriculum, what teachers can even say, and putting “In God We Trust” in every classroom — it has to be 11 by 14 inches in size. They’re micromanaging at a level we haven’t seen in a long time.
Keller: Hubris is the word for this kind of overreach. This micromanagement of government at a level that really is not operationally reasonable is going to catch up with this majority. And that's something that we’re already seeing at the midpoint of this legislative session.
Grace: Also, it's not exactly conservative, if you believe in limited government and government closest to the people.
DuBos: It's also telling, because all the big decisions are still being made in Baton Rouge. It’s still Huey Long’s model, but with a Republican bent. And the expectation in many quarters is that we're going to have a Republican governor next January. Will that change what we're seeing?
Grace: One thing to watch for is the swing vote situation we saw in the House Speaker election of Clay Schexnayder. If there are two warring Republican factions again, where is the big bloc of votes that could tilt things one way or the other? It's the Democrats. That's where Democrats may get their power.
Keller: Or will the Republicans coalesce around the new governor’s choice? I think whoever is governor will want to put his or her stamp on the direction of the state. The governor will claim he or she was elected with a mandate and has the right to do that. Those realities are not going away.
DuBos: The more things change... .