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Take your bill and go home

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For a legislator, the only thing worse than having your colleagues radically alter a bill of yours against your wishes is then to fail in begging them to change it back which will carry political consequences.

State Sen. Ryan Gatti found this out with his SB 512. Although it initially won approval easily in the Senate, the Republican who represents mainly Bossier and Webster Parishes found tough sledding for it in the House. The bill would have allowed school employees to pray with students who initiated that action during instructional times if all students assented.

In the lower chamber, social conservatives led by GOP state Rep. Rick Edmonds moved to severely circumscribe the bill. They argued that case law surrounding religious expression under the Constitution’s First Amendment made it unlikely that the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold such a law if challenged, and they feared a successful suit would give the Court room to place new restrictions on expressions of faith connected with schools.

Their view found backing from Republican former state Rep., now U.S. Rep., Mike Johnson – whose old district overlaps with Gatti’s. He and other prominent litigators of religious expression cases distributed a letter whose concerns Edmonds and other legislators would echo.

As a result, Edmonds amended the bill on the House floor, essentially wiping most of it out. Instead of trying to waive the Establishment Clause, the amended bill clarified that an employee could bow his head during prayer led by students in acknowledgment of their exercising their rights.

A majority of House Democrats, plus GOP state Rep. Rob Shadoin, opposed that, but once an overall House majority reshaped the bill all voted to send it back to the Senate. This did not sit well with Gatti, who got the Senate to turn down that version, thereby necessitating a conference committee to keep the bill alive.

That came down to a struggle to reinstate Gatti’s language. He ended up abandoning the Senate for a couple of hours, during which it voted on final passage of bills, to lobby personally committee members Edmonds and Republican state Rep. Nancy Landry. Two of each three-person delegations must assent to a compromise report, and third member Shadoin, like Gatti an ally of Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards, obviously already supported the Senate version.

But neither Edmonds, who after all had sponsored the amendment, nor Landry would budge. Humiliated, Gatti had to return to the Senate and ask it to approve the House’s language, which it did.

This foiled Gatti’s ability to bolster his social conservative credentials that could offset his liberal votes on fiscal issues during his first year in office. With Edwards’ cooperation in signing it into law, even with its inevitable upending by the courts he could have held himself out as a conservative champion and excoriate presumably liberal judges – good talking points in his district for a reelection bid.

Failing to accept the change gracefully instead sowed rancor that reduces further his ability to legislate effectively.

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer or this newspaper.

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