BATON ROUGE — Caterpillars are poisonous. A caterpillar transforms into the butterfly that would be named Louisiana’s official butterfly. So, Rep. Greg Miller said he didn’t want to be on record supporting the butterfly bill. He wanted to reverse his previous vote supporting the proposal.
“I don’t like caterpillars,” said Miller, R-Norco. “And I found out it’s poisonous to be eaten.”
“Do you eat a lot of caterpillars?” asked Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.
Miller replied: “I didn’t say I ate them.”
The exchange on the House floor last week was one of the stranger give-and-takes of the regular legislative session. But if it seemed silly, it was meant to be.
Miller, who eventually withdrew his request about the butterfly bill, was trying to draw attention to a practice little-known to the public that lets House lawmakers change their votes after bills have passed or failed — as long as the switch doesn’t change the outcome.
Critics say the practice allows lawmakers to change their position after the fact to lessen pushback against their votes or to curry favor with particular lobbying groups and organizations. They say it undermines the chamber’s integrity.
“I want people to just live with their votes,” said Miller, who acknowledges he changed votes in prior sessions.
In a recent special session, a number of Republican House lawmakers who had voted for changes to an insurance tax credit later that day streamed to the microphone to switch their votes to opposition. They worried language in the bill might have been an indicator of support for Medicaid expansion, and they didn’t want that on their records.
Only the final decision shows up in the vote tally listed online for a piece of legislation. People tracking bills would only know that lawmakers switched their positions after the vote if they looked in the official journal of the day’s floor action, a more cumbersome — and less obvious — search.
An official “legislative calendar,” printed months after a session ends, includes an index showing the vote changes. But that document isn’t available online. The calendar for the 2015 regular session showed 144 vote changes from 59 lawmakers.
The Senate doesn’t allow such switches after the voting machine is closed. If senators change their minds, or if they disagree with a vote cast for them by an aide or another senator, they’re limited in response.
“The only thing they can do is put a note in the journal that they meant to vote a different way,” said Senate spokeswoman Brenda Hodge.
In the House, the rules once were more liberal, allowing House members to change their votes on legislation days or even weeks later, as long as the passage or failure of the bill didn’t change. In 2008, then-House Speaker Jim Tucker tried to make it harder. He pushed a rule that limited lawmakers to vote changes on the same day the legislation was heard and required lawmakers to make the request at the microphone on the House floor.
That hasn’t quelled the vote-switching.
“It’s this parade of people at the end of the day changing votes,” Miller said. “Sometimes it was after members got emails from people complaining about their votes.”
Rep. Gene Reynolds, head of the House Democratic caucus, raised the possibility of a rule change. He said the vote switching often looks politically motivated.
“We’ve got to change the culture of what we’re doing. It looks bad on us, and I love this body and I don’t want us to look bad,” said Reynolds, D-Minden.
But he pulled the proposal in the special session amid concerns it would limit House members’ ability to cast or correct votes they missed because they were working on legislation in the Senate or elsewhere in the building.
Miller has started questioning lawmakers about switched positions on bills when they ask for permission to change their votes, rather than allowing it to be routine.
“It’s nothing personal against anybody. It has nothing to do with the content of the bill. I just want to get people out of that practice,” he said.