Roughly an hour before he was sworn into office last week, Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards, the first Louisiana governor ever elected directly from the state House, saw the limits of his power tested when representatives selected a Republican speaker, Taylor Barras of New Iberia.
The governor’s support is so critical that no House speaker has been elected in recent history without the backing of Louisiana’s top official. It was also a historic moment in Louisiana’s lower chamber, where there hasn’t been a contested speaker election accompanied by a public voice vote since 1984.
Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Shreveport, said the vote was more about the House declaring its independence from gubernatorial control, which is a form of sway that’s found less in statute and the state constitution than it is in Louisiana’s colorful political legend and lore.
“It’s a true separation of powers now,” said Johnson. “And for Republicans, it was about principle. It was about making sure the governor did not get his choice for speaker. This makes it very clear that the governor is going to have a difficult time in the House with his proposals.”
Edwards is also the first Democratic governor in recent history to have to work with a Republican-majority Legislature. Louisiana has had Republican governors paired with Democratic Legislatures in the past, but those days were marked neither by red nor blue partisan politics.
In the 1970s and 1980s, and even into the 1990s, lawmakers rarely if ever voted along stringent partisan lines. Today, however, the Legislature’s issues are growing more nationalized and the divide is becoming clearer.
“If a color analogy is needed, John Bel Edwards has to have a purple Legislature again,” said Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. “As we moved away from Gov. (Kathleen) Blanco and into the term of Gov. (Bobby) Jindal, we saw less of that. Now those days seem completely gone, especially for the next four years. But something will have to give. There are not enough Democrats to ignore the Republicans and Republicans need to work with the governor because he does have veto authority.”
Ben Nevers, Edwards’ chief of staff, said the administration is “excited” about working with a Republican speaker and the House, but he doesn’t know yet where or how compromises will be struck.
“I don’t think the people of Louisiana want gridlock,” Nevers said. “I’m very concerned right now about partisan politics.”
This scenario could force Edwards to rely heavily on executive orders, like modern presidents, which he is already doing with expanding Medicaid and other actions.
“But that’s not real policymaking,” said Stockley. “That’s more like political cover and something you can use to say you are delivering on your promises.”
Gene Mills, president of Louisiana Family Forum, a Christian-based political advocacy group, said that Edwards should be pleased with the outcome, since the House leadership now aligns perfectly with some of his campaign vows on traditionally conservative issues
“This decision will help Gov. Edwards fulfill his pro-life and pro-family pledges,” Mills said.
Still there are others that argue that the promises from Edwards’ inauguration speech and early executive actions, such as expanding Medicaid; reversing food stamp restrictions; advocating equal pay for women; and proposing protections the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, show he won’t necessarily be the moderate as portrayed by his 2015 campaign.
“The positions he is taking now are certainly not the ones he echoed and repeated during the election,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a partner with Southern Media and Opinion Research. ”You can see people on social media starting to look at this and say, ‘Wow. This guy is a liberal.’ It’s going to be difficult for him to both maintain his Democratic base and please those conservatives and moderates who supported him.”
Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, said the vote in the House puts Edwards in a position where he’ll have to give more to work with representatives, rather than lawmakers in the lower chamber trying to compromise with him.
“This puts us in a better position to get the governor to play ball on the budget and other issues, more so than if he would have gotten the speaker he wanted,” said Talbot.
Others believe the move gives Edwards political cover. Since the House now has independence, Edwards will be able to lay blame at its feet if representatives are unable to forge a compromise on upcoming budget negotiations.
There’s a $750 million shortfall for the current budget year that concludes at the end of June and a $1.9 billion gap for the next fiscal year.
Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, the chairwoman emeritus of the Legislative Black Caucus, said, “All this shows is that Republicans wanted a Republican speaker and the House wanted independence. The last two years when Republicans had a majority we all managed to compromise. This body knows how to work together.