June 11, 2015 12:19 PM
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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The outsized power Louisiana's governors have historically wielded over the state Senate could be drastically curtailed under rules the chamber adopted following an impassioned debate Wednesday evening.

Exasperated by the actions of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has put constraints on how to close a $1.6 billion budget gap, the Senate voted 34-4 to elect the chamber's future leaders by secret ballot.

Tensions have heightened between lawmakers and Jindal over the past four years as he has insisted on policies that lay the groundwork for a likely presidential bid.

Although frustration with Jindal may have culminated in the change Wednesday, governors long before him have had a heavy hand in legislative leadership decisions. Senators who have voted against governors have found themselves stripped of their committee chairmanships.

Now, the chamber's leaders are selected every four years by a public vote of senators — a process fraught with arm-twisting and political retribution as governors have sought to install leaders who support their causes.

"It is an authority we have ceded," said Sen. Eric LaFleur, a Ville Platte Democrat who authored the rule change. "We just allow it. We just acquiesce in the choice of the governor."

That is subject to change in 2016 once the next governor and next legislature take office. Under the new rules, the secret ballot will determine who would serve as the president and president pro tempore.

Backers of the rule change say the current way of electing Senate leadership can put lawmakers — especially freshmen legislators and those from rural areas — at odds with the governor if they don't kowtow and back his chosen leader.

Retribution is in store for those who aren't with the program. Don't support the governor's choice? Funding for a project in your home district can be cut, lawmakers say.

Those who cast a crucial vote in favor of the governor's hand-picked leader could be rewarded.

Sen. J.P. Morrell said the current election process "is completely rife with opportunities for side deals to be made" in exchange for votes.

For new lawmakers, a vote on leadership can "determine your fate for the first four years," said Morrell, D-New Orleans.

"That is a tremendous burden to put on somebody who has never been here before," Morrell said. "This bill protects the new members who don't know where the bathrooms are."

Not everyone was on board with the rule change.

Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said secret balloting lacks transparency, comparing it to secretive papal conclaves that lead to the selection of a new pope.

"Rome is burning all around us and we're busy arguing about who Caesar is going to be," Claitor said.

Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, said lawmakers ought to toughen up.

"Man up. Woman up," Peterson said. "If you feel intimidated, that's your problem."

LaFleur said the rule change is not a panacea that will fix all of the Senate's leadership troubles.

But "this does take one step and put us a little bit closer," he said.