The contentious vote for House speaker started Louisiana’s new legislative term with yet another controversy, creating waves across the state’s political landscape and seeming destined to shape a new relationship between the House and the governor.
Louisiana’s political class viewed the election of GOP House Speaker Clay Schexnayder as seismic. But the broader long-term implications of a minority group of Republicans joining with Democrats to choose the chamber’s leader remain largely speculation. Committee assignments haven’t been released, bills haven’t been filed and votes on legislation haven’t been taken.
One thing appears certain: Republicans in the majority-GOP House again will be fractured, with competing factions disagreeing over the level of cooperation they should have with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. But this time, those open to negotiating with the governor on issues will be at the helm, in the leadership jobs, rather than in rank-and-file positions many of them held last term.
Schexnayder said he wants to have a “working relationship” with Edwards and Democrats, rather than an openly contentious one.
“It’s not a bad thing to be able to work with the other side,” the new House speaker said in an interview with a Baton Rouge radio station. But in that same interview, he noted his support for Edwards’ opponent in the governor’s race and his conservative voting record: “I’m not going to be on the governor’s Christmas list, by no means.”
Schexnayder, an Ascension Parish car repair shop owner in his third-term, won the speaker’s job with the support of 22 other Republicans, all 35 Democrats and the House’s two independents. Forty-five Republicans voted for Republican Rep. Sherman Mack, a Livingston Parish lawyer.
Edwards urged Democrats to vote as a bloc — and urged them to oppose Mack, who was heavily supported by Attorney General Jeff Landry and some prominent GOP donors at odds with the Democratic governor.
Republicans on the losing end of the vote say that’s given Edwards too much influence in the chamber, while GOP lawmakers who backed Schexnayder say they were showing independence from outside forces by rejecting the pick of Landry, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and other Republican leaders.
Spillout from that speaker’s decision will reverberate across the term.
Edwards was obviously pleased with the vote.
“I think it was a vote to make sure that we work together and move our state forward, not that the House is going to agree with everything I propose or that I’ll agree with everything they want to do,” he said on his monthly radio show. “But I think we now have a really, really good shot of working together.”
The first likely signal of how Schexnayder will operate — and how much he’ll negotiate with Edwards — comes at the end of the month, when the state’s income forecasting panel, the Revenue Estimating Conference, meets.
Former House Speaker Taylor Barras and former House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, both Republicans, repeatedly blocked forecast increases sought by Edwards and recommended by nonpartisan economists, arguing they were taking a more conservative approach. Edwards said the men were playing politics.
Schexnayder hasn’t indicated if he’ll agree to raise the latest forecast, or continue the approach of his predecessor. But it’s clear some House Republicans who didn’t support Schexnayder see the forecasting decision as a bellwether vote.
If Schexnayder agrees to increase the projections, “it’s a first indication that the governor has his ear,” said Rep. Blake Miguez, who heads the House GOP delegation and backed Mack.
Schexnayder said he hopes the entire chamber will “come together” and Republicans won’t be divided across the term. But that will depend in large part on the willingness of those on the losing side of the speaker’s vote to mend fences.
The acrimony made the Senate look uneventful when Lafayette Republican Sen. Page Cortez won the Senate president’s race unanimously, in a deal struck weeks earlier.
But Cortez will be a different kind of leader than his predecessor, and that will make the Senate more of a wild card for Edwards — rather than when it was led by his term-limited reliable ally, Republican John Alario.
Cortez said he intends to work with Edwards. But he also pledged to his colleagues that the Senate would be independent: “We as senators are going to decide our policy, not the people outside the rails and not the governor.”
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte