Cooperation or conflict ahead?

EDWARDS, LANDRY — Past conflicts between Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, left, and Republican state Attorney General Jeff Landry are expected to continue following the re-election of Edwards, who faces a Republican-dominated state Legislature.

The second inauguration of Louisiana’s Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is scheduled for noon on Jan. 13, 2020, but perhaps the most important events of that day will take place two hours earlier. That is when the Legislature holds its organizational session to elect a new speaker of the House and president of the Senate.

State Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, has already secured enough votes to become the next Senate president, according to a report in The Advocate.

The winners of those two positions will speak for what one political scientist calls “probably the most conservative Legislature in 100 years.”

The 105-member House will have 68 Republicans, 35 Democrats and 2 independents (No Party). The GOP came up two votes short of reaching a two-thirds supermajority (70) that can override a governor’s veto. The 39-member Senate will have 27 Republicans and 12 Democrats, with one GOP member more than the 26 needed for a supermajority.

The House speaker and Senate president get to name chairmen and members of their respective committees, and that is where legislation either dies or moves to a full House and Senate for debate and a vote.

Louisiana has a multitude of problems that need to be solved, but it isn’t going to happen if everyone isn’t willing to compromise. Unfortunately, the most conservative Republicans don’t like compromise. If any of them become House speaker or Senate president, we won’t see much progress.

Gregory Rusovich of New Orleans, an international business executive, said, “It’s time for political leaders to roll up their sleeves, put aside divisiveness and solve Louisiana’s most critical challenges.” He added that Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida and other economically vibrant states won’t sit still and wait for Louisiana to catch up.

Tax reform is probably the state’s most important need because experts call the tax system one of the most complicated in the country. Louisiana will never become a business friendly state until the system is completely overhauled, and there are many valuable studies outlining what needs to be done.

Infrastructure (roads, bridges, ports and airports) needs total over $14 billion, and little has been done to address that problem. More revenues have to be found and that has to come with budget reform or new taxes, and that second option isn’t likely to happen any time soon.

The high cost of auto insurance needs to be addressed and former solutions haven’t fared well in the Legislature. A bill at this year’s session got out of the House with a 69-30 vote, but it died in a Senate committee. There seemed to be general agreement that the bill didn’t guarantee lower insurance rates and was too favorable to insurance companies.

Louisiana made some significant progress in other important areas at the last legislative session. Higher education got new funds after nearly a decade of the highest budget cuts in the country. Early childhood (birth to age 3) and K-12 education also got new funds after similar tough years, and teachers got long overdue pay increases.

A 0.45 percent increase in the 4-percent state sales tax for seven years produced some budget surpluses that made those increases possible. Edwards said he won’t support an early repeal of that tax boost unless there is strong evidence it won’t lead once again to years of state budget instability.

OK, what are the chances Edwards and the Legislature can work together to bring about significant changes? There are early indications it could be difficult.

Mark Ballard of The Advocate said, “Stephen Waguespack, representing the business community, and Louis Reine, representing organized labor, agree on little, but both suggested last week that because neither side won a mandate, the door is open to negotiation rather than the intransigence that marked the last four years.”

The newspaper said the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority, led by state Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., spent millions to purge Republican legislators who didn’t meet their strict definition of ideological purity. The two men believe the ticket to prosperity is a smaller government with lower taxes.

No surprises there since both officials have been critical of Edwards since he first took office in 2016. Now, Landry in particular, believes anyone who smiles at the governor or gives him the time of day is suspect. Ballard said with a two-thirds majority in the Senate and only two shy of that in the House, Republicans can do pretty much as they please, overriding gubernatorial vetoes and ignoring input from Democrats.

Edwards said, “I just hope that the Legislature this time, if they want independence, that’s great, but obstructionism and independence are not the same thing. So I’m just looking to have a speaker with whom I can work and leadership in the Legislature that I can work with. And that’s true for the Senate as well.”

We won’t know what happens next until the final leadership decisions are made on Jan. 13, but the early signs are troublesome.

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