T he final week of this year’s first special session concluded with weak signs of encouragement, lawmakers dreaming of adjournment and a set of tax bills stuck in the increasingly muddy politics of the Louisiana Legislature.
While the special session was anything but an exercise in policymaking, it did raise new questions about where, exactly, this term of state government is headed — and what, precisely, is wrong with the House, Senate and administration.
The sun also set on the final week of the special session with the Capitol’s exterior sandwiched between towers of scaffolding, part of a seemingly never-ending construction facelift for the building’s Alabama limestone. Back before the session started, jokes came fast and frequently about the Capitol’s occupants needing some work inside as well. Few probably realized how prophetic those quips were.
Without the distractions of key bills moving through the process, some lawmakers looked within their own ranks for issues to pursue. These internal issues emerged due in small part to growing pains, or rather the result of politicos navigating a shifting landscape for the past two years. The issues also stemmed from an awareness that the next term of state government will present its own set of challenges and usher in a new way of doing political business in Baton Rouge.
In the House, for example, the Black Caucus has resurfaced and its members, collectively, represent a force to be reckoned with for the remainder of this term. In the Senate, Republicans are attempting to get more organized via new delegation bylaws — in a chamber not known for instituting new rules. Meanwhile, on the Capitol’s fourth floor, administration officials are wrestling with the task of engaging a Legislature that’s growing more independent by the day.
There’s little doubt that the stances taken by the Black Caucus (opposing an increase in the state sales tax structure and advocating income tax changes) are among the top storylines from the first special session of 2018. But those storylines are likewise among the most misunderstood, with members insisting that their galvanization was based more on issues and membership maturity than politics and personalities.
While many believe this has caused heartburn for Gov. John Bel Edwards, and it probably has to some extent, several interviews with Black Caucus members didn’t indicate any kind of unreconcilable split between the group as a whole and the administration. Still, some members are looking for a few tactical improvements from the Edwards administration.
One lawmaker said they were disappointed the governor “has been more receptive to bending to the will of Republicans, probably to the detriment of his own base.” Edwards’ supporters contend he’s in a weird spot, between working with his Democratic counterparts and appeasing GOP lawmakers who hold a majority in both chambers.
Another caucus member said they were disappointed when income taxes were more or less removed from the table due to conservative opposition, while the request by some Democrats to spike the sales tax hike was largely ignored. “We are just letting it be known that we’re serious about these positions,” a legislator said. “That doesn’t mean a disagreement is leading to people not wanting to work together.”
There have been isolated incidents where tempers have flared during negotiations between the administration and certain caucus members, but exaggerations and spin have overinflated a few of the accounts floating around the Capitol’s halls. “I honestly think the governor had a tough time in a couple of these talks we’ve had,” said a caucus member. “We’ve all had those kinds of talks up here, though. It’s not easy. But I’m not saying the alliance is strained. It’s still a strong partnership.”
In a less noticeable move, the Senate Republican delegation voted last week to institute bylaws for the first time, and it added new officers as well. Sen. Danny Martiny was re-elected as chairman, but the delegation now has a vice chairman, Sen. Page Cortez. It also has an executive committee consisting of Sens. Norby Chabert, Sharon Hewitt and Barrow Peacock.
There’s a desire among some Republican senators to become more organized, in terms of news releases, delegation stances and other activities. With GOP majorities in both the House and Senate, those serving in the latter also want to pack more of a punch and shake off the perception of being the governor’s backstop.
Others see the Senate delegation changes as a way to prepare for the next term, when there will be at least 16 new senators. It’s a smart look ahead, as special interests that typically play in legislative elections intend to give extra attention to the Senate in 2019, in hopes of sending more conservatives to the upper chamber.
While the challenges faced by House Republicans and the Edwards administration have been on display for the past two years, this special session evolved into a showcase of sorts for the evolving role of the Black Caucus and some corners of the Senate. Like their counterparts in the House, senators from all political sides are yearning for a more inclusive negotiating process and a badly-needed injection of certainty. These are needs that rank-and-file legislators can at least agree on. This widespread realization, however, wasn’t enough to right the special session. But it’s still something to build on.
After one of the special session’s tougher evenings, Speaker Taylor Barras told reporters the bottleneck in the House is likely here to stay. That means compromises could be difficult to capture moving forward.
Learning lessons, on the other hand, have been plentiful.