Louisiana Spotlight: Distrust replaces camaraderie in Capitol
BATON ROUGE — Louisiana’s Legislature used to be the place where fiery clashes at the microphone were followed by drinks, dinner and traded jokes later in the evening. Those days appear to be waning, replaced by strained conversations and tattered relationships.
Now, words like fractured, angry and distrustful describe the vibe, at least in the Louisiana House, where a 15-day special session blew up and failed to achieve any of the budget-hole-closing goals set for it.
The atmosphere is far tenser than lawmakers likely would prefer heading into Monday’s start of a monthslong regular legislative session where they’ll be around each other nearly daily — and where the state’s financial problems once again will loom large.
House relationships appear so shredded in some instances that it’s questionable if the chamber can unite to enact major legislation or to determine how to handle a budget gap estimated around $700 million.
“A lot of people’s feelings have been hurt. Hopefully, we can put it behind us and move on and do the people’s work,” said Rep. Kenny Havard, a St. Francisville Republican.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who was a House member for two terms, said: “The level of acrimony and distrust is beyond anything I’ve ever seen in the 10 years I’ve been in state government.”
While some policy changes can be rammed through the Legislature on the strength of a governor’s or legislative leader’s power, more often it takes the trust and bonds that colleagues develop over time to smooth passage.
Those sorts of relationships are becoming frayed in the partisan divides of Louisiana’s Capitol, if they ever get formed at all. Even within parties, sharper disagreements are emerging between moderates and the more conservative and liberal ends of the spectrum.
As tax negotiations in the special session broke down in the House, Republicans spoke out against their leaders, venting about political agendas, while Democrats noticeably fractured in their voting patterns.
Lawmakers slammed each other on social media, and Edwards’ staff joined in the fray to heap on more criticism. Republicans and Democrats swapped accusations about who reneged on which tax deals. At one point in a House floor speech, Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Shreveport Republican called Edwards a “bald-faced liar” in his description of the state’s budget shortfall.
Once the session collapsed and ended early, the blame game and traded disparagements continued.
Republicans said Democrats kept changing their demands in the negotiations.
GOP House Speaker Taylor Barras said the governor helped cause the session breakdown by being unable to rally the support of Democrats for certain tax measures and for refusing to negotiate on the amount of money that should be raised to replace expiring taxes.
“I think the goal posts kept being moved. Every day, something different, somebody demanded something different,” said House Republican leader Lance Harris.
Democrats accused Republicans of acting in bad faith. Edwards laid all the blame on Barras, saying the speaker went back on his word after promising votes on a tax package. He called it “a spectacular failure of leadership in the House.”
“Even the most casual observer of the way the House has conducted itself over the last two weeks can only conclude that it was totally dysfunctional,” Edwards said.
The Legislative Black Caucus piled on about the “absence of genuine leadership in the House,” said the Republican leadership showed a “complete lack of respect for our members and the people we represent” and said Barras “chose to build walls and divide us.”
Despite the rancor, Barras said the special session was worth having.
“I think the discussions and the negotiations to try to reach where we were attempting to get was not wasteful. As we come back to solve the revenue issue going forward, I think it was a good deliberation,” he said.
Others suggested the special session’s schisms need repair.
“We have certainly lost something around here. We’ve lost our way, members,” said New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger, the highest-ranking House Democrat. “We have a lot of work ahead of us. My solemn prayer is that we do come back together.”
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte