Legislative Report

House leaders force special session by running out the clock Speaker Taylor Barras said he was working as quickly as he could. If so, it was the worst display of clock management in Baton Rouge since Les Miles prowled the sidelines at Tiger Stadium.

by Mike Stagg

Speaker Taylor Barras and House Appropriations chair Cameron Henry combined to block Rep. Walt Leger's attempt to force a vote on the Senate version of HB1 in the final hour of the regular session on Thursday afternoon.

Illustration From Photo by Robin May

The regular session of the 2017 Legislature ended as it began with House Republicans playing keep away with the budget and allowing the session to end without its members being allowed to vote on a Senate proposal to end the impasse over HB1.

The anger and frustration over the handling of the budget, which had been confined to Democrats earlier in the session, spread to the majority in the final minutes with 10 Republicans and two no-party members joining Democrats to force a vote on the Senate offer on the bill only to have the clock run out on a procedural maneuver.

It was gripping drama driven by heavy-handed politics involving the three men who vied for the speakership on the opening day of the 2016 session — Reps. Taylor Barras, Cameron Henry and Walt Leger III. Leger was Gov. John Bel Edwards' choice for the job, but he did not get the 53 votes needed for election. Henry ran second and dropped out. Barras, who ran third, stayed in the race with Leger and was elected on the second ballot.

In the final 30 minutes of the session, on the floor of the House, Leger tapped into the weeks of growing displeasure with Barras' rule even among Republicans to put together a majority that overcame the concerted efforts of Henry, Barras and GOP Caucus leader Lance Harris to block a vote on the Senate's offer on HB1.

It was the third of three motions made by Leger from the well of the House after Henry, on a point of personal privilege, updated House members on the status of the negotiations with the Senate over HB1. Henry took the floor at about 5:23 p.m., 37 minutes before the session was required to end. He began by returning to his desk to retrieve a folder.

"I know many of you are anxiously awaiting some type of response from the Senate on HB1," Henry told his colleagues. "I am also awaiting that."

The Appropriations Committee chair then gave a rundown of the offers that he said the House had made to Senate leaders over the prior 36 or so hours. He confirmed what others had reported as his chief problem with the Senate's proposal, namely basing the budget on appropriating 100 percent of the Revenue Estimating Conference's revenue forecast for the upcoming fiscal year.

"They would be appropriating 100 percent of a wrong number," Henry said, adding, "They've already been wrong once this year. We've already had to make a beginning-of-the-year cut of $27.4 million." Henry said the House kept offering the Senate more concessions until it became clear the Senate would not budge from its approach to the budget contained in its version of HB1.

"Against my better judgment, I went to the Senate today with a spreadsheet signed by two members of the House conference committee, outlining exactly what the bill did," Henry said. "I did speak to Miss Pat about it. She didn't like it. But, she knew what we were going to offer. She didn't want to sign it, which is good. That's fine."

Henry was referring to Rep. Patricia Smith of Baton Rouge who serves on the Appropriations Committee and whom Barras had named as one of three House members of the HB1 conference committee. Barras was the third member.

Henry said it became clear to him that he and Barras "were negotiating against ourselves."

On Thursday morning, Senate Finance Committee chair Eric Lafleur reported that Barras had made an offer to Senate leaders, which Lafleur said had been received favorably. Early Thursday afternoon, Sen. Fred Mills told The Independent that Barras had told him the speaker believed "they have a deal."

Photo by Robin May

The problem for Barras was that Henry had also gone on record early Thursday saying that he would not bring a conference committee report on HB1 to the floor of the House for a vote if the budget contained in the report was based on 100 percent of the REC estimate.

Just before 5 p.m., Barras, Henry and Harris met with President John Alario and Senate HB1 conference committee member Greg Tarver of Shreveport behind the president's chair in the Senate chamber. They were later joined by Lafleur. Harris, Henry and Barras left the Senate at 5:10 p.m. and headed back to the House where the drama was to unfold in the final 40 minutes.

Between Barras' morning offer to the Senate, his afternoon comment to Mills and his meeting with Alario and Harris in the Senate, Barras apparently decided that he would help Henry make good on his commitment to block the Senate's offer from getting to the floor of the House.

"The negotiation doesn't seem to be going very well," Henry told his House colleagues. "The Senate seems to be stuck on 100 percent and that's their prerogative. I don't think that's in the best interest of anyone in this room, anyone in that room, or roughly the 4.5 million people that we represent. I don't know much more that I can do to prevent us from having to come back here. I have absolutely no desire to be here at 6:30 tonight."

But that is where Henry and his 104 colleagues found themselves as he and Barras went to great lengths to try to ensure that the House did not get to vote on the Senate's compromise offer.

Rep. Denise Marcelle of Baton Rouge was recognized by Barras.

"I guess I'm a little confused," Marcelle began. "We do have a report from the Senate. So, what you're saying is you're not willing to negotiate any further with the Senate over what you think is best for all the constituents of Louisiana. You're giving us your scenario of what you think and it's not necessarily that the Senate hasn't given us anything."

Barras cut off Marcelle noting that Henry was speaking on a point of personal privilege and that questions were not allowed on such matters.

Henry admitted that a Senate offer existed and that it had been signed by four of the members of the HB1 conference committee — Sens. Lafleur, Alario and Tarver and by Rep. Smith, one of Barras' appointees. Henry maintained that such reports "typically have two signatures from the House and two signatures from the Senate."

"This wasn't part of a negotiation, it's just the same thing that they've always done," Henry said. "I can't work any harder and any smarter than I have. I think that sometime you end up negotiating against yourself and that's where we are. We're trying to get the best thing done, but sometimes you're just stuck at deadlock. I apologize for that."

Rep. Sam Jones of Franklin asked Barras for a point of order. "If the representative who is chairman of the committee gave an update on a bill, why can't we ask questions," Jones asked Barras.

Barras reiterated that Henry had spoken on personal privilege. "But he was talking about the business of the state," Jones countered.

"I understand," Barras said. "He felt like he wanted to give y'all an update on where we are at this point."

"Let me ask you this on a point of order," Jones responded. "Do you anticipate us having a chance to vote on the Senate proposal before six?"

"What Senate proposal are you referring, too?" Barras asked.

"The one that Rep. Henry just talked about," Jones replied over a rising level of chatter in the House in response to Barras' question.

"The conference committee report that they created on a House bill?" Barras asked Jones. "It only has one House signature on it at this point."

"I know, Mr. Speaker. Are we going to get a chance to vote on this," Jones pressed. "I'm a member of the House, not the Senate and Rep. Henry represents all of us and I want to vote on it."

"We got that report a half an hour ago," Barras told Jones, indicating that he likely got it during his meeting with Alario in the Senate. "We've gone through it. Until we get a second signature, we're not there yet."

"But, this is the state's business," Jones said. "Will we get a chance to vote on it? Because the other signature could be yours."

"Well, we're at 5:29 and we're trying to keep moving here, so, if you want to keep moving, let's give that a shot," Barras replied. "We still have work to do. We have HB2, we have other work. We've been negotiating."

"But, we're not moving," Jones said, before thanking Barras and taking his seat.

"OK, members, if we are going to keep asking these questions, we're not going to be able to do business at the mic," Barras said.

Rep. Barbara Norton of Shreveport asked Barras to clarify what the House order of business would be in the final minutes of the session.

"We have HB2, we have HB1 that's still open, there's another bill number that I don't know off the top of my head, but there are about four left," Barras told Norton. "If our negotiations continue and we have a conference committee report to vote on, we will certainly go there before six o'clock."

Barras recognized Leger for a motion, who then took the floor where he would remain for the remainder of the session.

Photo by Robin May

"Members, it's 5:30, we don't have any time to delay any more," Leger began. He said he had distributed the Senate report to the members of the House, which Henry had mentioned.

"It appropriates 100 percent of the dollars and there's a reason that's important," Leger said. "Because if you don't appropriate it, it can't be spent in the course of the year. You don't have to spend it, you can put it into a fund or somewhere in the budget, but if you put it on the side, it will become surplus and we will have to deal with it in the next fiscal year."

"At this late hour, we have two choices," Leger continued. "We have a conference committee report that either the chairman of the committee or the speaker of the House can sign that we could take up and vote on. That conference committee report is a compromise. Or, we can pull up the original Senate bill and concur in that, which would not be a compromise. It would be accepting what they sent over."

"We can't possibly have sat here all day long and not come to some point where we can have a vote on this and move forward," Leger added. He then made a motion to discharge the conference committee and to bring the Senate's compromise offer up for a vote.

Barras and Clerk of the House Albert Speer began a conversation over the speaker's desk that stretched for four minutes. The members were restless. Barras tried to calm them.

"Members, this is an unusual motion and we're trying to make sure that we do it correctly," Barras said. By that time Henry and some other House members had gathered at the Speaker's desk to listen to the conversation over the motion.

Five and a half minutes into the discussion with Speer, Barras gaveled the House to order and made a plea for patience.

"This is an unusual motion," Barras repeated. "This is something that's never quite been done before. It is a conference committee report coming from the Senate on a House bill and the motion Rep. Leger has made refers to a bill that he is not the author of. As we go through the process of our body, you know, when we discard committees, we don't do it without the chairman present. There's a reason for that. It's so that when we're in the Senate or walking to the restroom, that someone's not jumping up making motions to kill bills."

"This is an unusual motion," Barras said again. "I understand the will of the body. I am in a spot as to make a call that relates to the appropriateness of this motion. And, I have made the decision that with Rep. Leger not being the author, to make the motion that he did is inappropriate."

Leger, still in the well of the House, responded to Barras' ruling: "Mr. Speaker, the reason that the rule requires that the author be in the room is because this motion is in order," Leger said. "The author's required to be in the room. He's in fact in the room. He can object, of course, he can raise whatever objection he wants. He can debate it as long as he wants. But the committee needs to be discharged because we have never been given an opportunity to consider the bill."

There were approximately 100 uniformed probation and parole officers in the Capitol on Thursday. Most of them were sitting in the House gallery above the floor. Rep. Ted James of Baton Rouge asked Leger if the money for their raises was included in the Senate compromise offer.

"Yes," Leger responded.

Barras reiterated his ruling on Leger's motion. "I have ruled that Rep. Leger's motion is not appropriate," Barras said. "There may be other motions that are appropriate."

Leger made his second motion. This one asked the House members to direct Speer, the clerk of the House, to accept the Senate conference committee report with the four signatures on it. "The clerk can accept it if we direct him to do so and I move that we direct him to accept it," Leger explained.

There were less than 20 minutes remaining in the session when Leger made his motion. In order to suspend the rules, Leger's motion needed to get 70 votes, two-thirds of the 105-member body.

"Members, let's vote on something," Leger said. "It's 5:45."

Rep. Katrina Jackson of Monroe made a motion for the vote on Leger's motion to be a record vote. The motion carried but ate up a precious minute.

"We are throwing up procedural barriers to voting on the budget," Leger lamented as a request came from St. Bernard Parish Rep. Ray Garofalo for a quorum call vote. Another minute was lost as 104 members voted present.

Leger's motion failed outright, 50-54, and fell far short of the 70 votes needed, but he was not done.

Before the vote, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson of New Orleans brought Leger a copy of the House rules, which he then used to question Barras' ruling on the appropriateness of his first motion to discharge the committee. He began his remarks, but Barras cut off his microphone.

"Rep. Leger, we have other business we need to move to," Barras said.

Rep. Smith, a member of the conference committee, was recognized from her seat. There were about 12 minutes left in the session.

Smith began by berating Barras for not recognizing her earlier despite the fact that she had repeatedly signaled her desire to make a comment on the process. Smith then attacked Barras' ruling on Leger's discharge motion.

"We have done these types of motions in this building and in the Senate, no matter what you said and ruled that way," Smith said. "We have discharged committees in this body before. We've done it on Senate bills and we've done it on House bills."

Barras and Speer conferred then the Speaker said, "Ms. Smith, as I think I said, when we have discharged bills, the authors of the bills are normally the ones making those motions."

Smith disputed the fact. The clock ticked away.

Rep. Sam Jones, noting that the clock on the regular session was about to expire, asked Barras about the cost of a special session. "The difference between the two bills is small enough that it could be handled by the Joint Committee on the Budget or the governor," Jones said. "We don't need to be here for a special session."

"Rep. Jones, we have been here most of the day trying to find that negotiation point," Barras said. "And it appears that we have reached a point that we can't negotiate to."

Rep. Nancy Landry asked if Barras was following the Rules of the House by allowing Jones and Smith to raise questions from their desks rather than the well of the House. "Yes, we've gone a little further than a point of order," Barras conceded, as more time elapsed.

"Members, we have other business to do," Barras said. "I'm asking that we move on."

Rep. Leger was back for his third motion. The motion directed the conference committee — Barras, Henry and Smith — to submit the Senate offer to the House as a committee of the whole. "The motion is in oder, let's vote, we don't have time," Leger said.

Rep. Lance Harris objected to the motion, forcing a vote. Barras said Leger's motion needed 53 votes to carry, a simple majority.

Rep. Kirk Talbot of Jefferson Parish asked for a quorum vote. That ate up another minute. All 105 members were present.

The vote was taken. This time, Leger's motion carried. It was a stunning 53-51 vote. It marked the first time during the session that the 60-member Republican Caucus had been split on a vote of any significance. Ten Republican representatives defied Harris, Henry and Barras to support Leger's motion: Chris Broadwater of Hammond, Charles Chaney of Rayville, Patrick Connick of Marrero, Kenny Havard of Jackson, John Guinn of Jennings, Barry Ivey of Baton Rouge, Rogers Pope of Denham Springs, Robert Shadoin of Ruston, and Joseph Stagni and Julie Stokes, both of Kenner. Republican Stephen Pugh of Pontchatoula did not vote on the motion.

Two no-party members — Joe Marino of Gretna and Terry Brown of Colfax — joined those Republicans and all 41 Democrats to deliver the rebuke to the Republican triumvirate that had run the House until those final minutes.

But that was as far as things got. Henry called for a motion to reconsider the vote, saying that members had not voted to refer the Senate conference report to the full House as a committee of the whole, when that is precisely what Leger's motion stated.

The point, though, was to eat up time, which became clear in the hubbub surrounding Henry's motion when Barras recognized Democrat John Anders of Vidalia, who had been assigned the task of making the motion to adjourn.

Barras gaveled the regular session to a close, leaving the House leadership in crisis at the end of a session in which they had exercised tight control until the final hour.

Not willing to risk exposing themselves to further damage, the House immediately moved to adjourn until Monday after the Special Session was gaveled to order at 6:30 p.m. and a few essential housekeeping steps.

The House will reconvene on Monday at 9 a.m., but the repercussions from Thursday afternoon will not soon be erased.