Leadership and the Lack Thereof

Louisiana’s House and Senate are each taking a three-day weekend, with many hoping that the extra day away from the Capitol will help curtail the crankiness that’s become more conspicuous in committees and floor debates this past week. Many members are blaming the churlishness on “legislative fatigue”, citing the back-to-back-to-back sessions of this term as the cause. After all, the old proverb says, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” But the quickened pace of this session, in an apparent effort to end early and get to another special session, is also amplifying the acrimony, much of which was left unresolved following the ignominious end to this year’s earlier special session. In the most recent edition of LA Politics Weekly, Jeremy Alford and Sarah Gamard took an extended look at the fussiness factors, and surveying 32 of 144 lawmakers about the current state of affairs. The more rabid Republicans in the House blame the governor, his scheduling of seemingly unending sessions, and his “demand” that they pick up the pace. Many of that same group also tout the cohesiveness of their particular coalition. House Democrats, on the other hand, point squarely at the “partisan political games” being played out. Senate members point at the House as the source of the dissonance, while House members from both sides of the aisle agree that it’s never been this bad. Rep. Sam Jones (D-Franklin) succinctly describes it as “ineffectual churning”, and Governor John Bel Edwards has a similar view. “It almost appears that the members of the House are allowed to meander around and float with the wind, and just settle wherever they want to settle. And if you have the votes necessary to pass a bill, then you have them, and if you don’t, you don’t,” the governor says. “The problem with that is you don’t end up successful on things that require an awful lot of courage – the hard decisions. You’ve got to have leadership.” Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Central) agrees. “There is no vision,” Ivey says. “Nobody is talking about what we want Louisiana to look like five, ten, twenty years from now. Frankly, nobody is looking past the next election.” Ivey, who describes himself as a conservative, is one of the handful of more moderate House Republicans – who don’t view “compromise” as a dirty word. He’s been participating in meetings of the “Middle Caucus” this session, in addition to Republican Caucus gatherings. He concurs that the main thing is lack of leadership. But while he reserves his deepest disgruntlement for House leadership, he isn’t shy to say that Gov. Edwards shares part of the blame. “I understand the governor has felt he needed to take a hands-off approach, but I really wish he would spell out a vision for the state’s future – beyond just generally asking us to fix the fiscal problems,” Ivey says. As the first person ever to move directly from Louisiana’s House to the Governor’s mansion, John Bel Edwards has been critical of the House, though he has consistently exhibited a reverence for the Legislature as an institution, and for the separation of powers between his branch and theirs. “I do love the legislature as an institution, and as a branch of government,” Edwards said, in an exclusive interview with the Bayou Brief. “I love the legislators individually, but I’m very frustrated because the big challenges that we face can only be resolved successfully by getting a two-thirds majority of the legislature to agree to a single approach. And there has been – in my estimation – a real absence of leadership in the House of Representatives, in the sense that you don’t have that one central figure – and it’s got to be the Speaker – who is charting the course, and pulling people together, and pushing people to get in line so that we can move forward.” Yet in the House there are three leaders: Speaker Taylor Barras, GOP Caucus leader Lance Harris, and Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry. Harris, described as “a bully” by Democrats and more than a few Republicans, only has the authority to “push” members of his own party to “get in line”, as the governor phrased it. Henry failed to win the speakership in January 2016, as too many members were turned off by his peremptory attitude. He has not softened in the past two years, and it’s generally conceded that Henry is the one who is “charting the course”, rather than Barras. Everybody likes Taylor Barras. It’s why he was picked as the compromise candidate for Speaker in 2016 – courteous, innocuous – he was the inoffensive choice. Barras, while a gentleman, has proven himself to be a “bless-your-heart” gentleman. And as all Southern ladies know, “Bless your heart” doesn’t always mean what it seems. “I’ll let you in on a little secret – I like Taylor. I’ve known him for ten years. He’s a good man – he’s a decent man,” Gov. Edwards says. “I think, however, he runs into a little resistance. And then he decides to abandon what it is he told me he was going to do. It’s not that he is being dishonest. I think he is being honest — he just hasn’t been able to hold the line, and that makes it very difficult.” The full House is becoming increasingly disorderly, with the Speaker being ineffectual at holding the line against the unruliness. More often than not, female members cannot be heard when they present their bills or ask questions of presenters, as the male majority carries on in conversational knots throughout the House, drowning out the ladies’ voices with their din. Republicans talk over Democrats at the microphone, with rare admonishment from the Speaker being directed at those who were encroached upon, rather than the interrupter. A heated exchange between Rep. Blake Miguez (R-New Iberia) and Rep. Barbara Norton (D-Shreveport) over Miguez’ bill to allow concealed-carry permit holders to bring their guns into schools was a case in point. Norton was trying to ask questions, and Miguez kept talking over her, elaborating on his answer unnecessarily, purposely drowning her out. It kept up for nearly five minutes, and even the Speaker had a tough time getting himself heard over Miguez. “Members,” Barras said, using his parental voice. “They’re there to enforce the law,” Miguez kept talking. “Members!” Barras raised his voice, “Let’s agree…” “To protect and serve,” Miguez continued. “Just a minute. Just a minute!” the Speaker shouted to be heard. “I need y’all to ASK a question, and I need the other one to answer the question – completely – before you ask another question. Please listen to the response, and then we’ll go to the next question,” he said, looking directly at Rep. Norton. Thursday, during the Q & A for Rep. Tony Bacala’s (R-Prairieville) bill to try an ferret out Medicaid fraud — which became anathema to Black Caucus members during the February special session — House Democratic Caucus chair Robert Johnson pointed out the bill was purely targeting the poor. The Speaker called, “Time,” on Johnson, who asked for an extension. When Bacala said, “No,” the Speaker laughed, causing Johnson to point at the dais and shout, “That said VOLUMES!” And when it comes to the concept of early adjournment of the regular session in order to expeditiously start a special session to fill the budget holes, Barras is crawfishing again. It had been publicly stated by the governor and Senate President John Alario that they were aiming at adjourning the regular session around May 14th, with a special session to commence immediately after. Yet once the House sent the budget bill to the Senate, the Speaker began suggesting May 18th instead – with the special session starting May 20th. This past week he started backing up some more. “It will depend on how fast we get our House bills back from the Senate,” Barras said when he spoke with reporters this past Monday evening. “We want the Senate to send the budget bill back, but we’re also waiting to see what happens with the Harrah’s bill (HB 553), and the Uber/Lyft bill (HB 749).” He is the author of both of those measures. The fate of the Harrah’s bill – granting a 30-year, no-bid contract extension for the current operator of the New Orleans land-based casino – became extremely uncertain with last weekend’s revelation by The Advocate’s Tyler Bridges that a Las Vegas real estate company has a five-year option – filed last October – to acquire Harrah’s New Orleans, Atlantic City, and Laughlin, Nevada, casinos. A Senate committee which had been scheduled to hear the Harrah’s bill this past Tuesday removed it from their calendar, pending more information. Thursday, nola.com’s Julia O’Donoghue tweeted she’d asked the Speaker for an update on progress toward early adjournment: “Speaker Barras told me he has not talked this week to @LouisianaGov or Alario about possibility of special session or the budget.” In my conversation with the governor, I had asked Edwards to explain his philosophy of “leadership”, based on his West Point training and military service. “You know, we had entire courses on leadership,” he said. “And what I think best exemplifies real leadership is someone who is willing to lead from the front, and by example. I’m talking about the things that are dangerous – the things that are hard. “Most importantly, you’re trained to make timely decisions. You want to have as much information as possible, but if you wait until you have all the information you want, in many cases it’s too late for the decision to have any real impact. And so, you have to try to gauge just when you have enough information to make a good decision. Because what they teach you is ‘a good decision timely made is much better than a perfect decision that comes too late’.” With clinic closure and layoff notices already being delivered by the public-private hospital partners, with high school students graduating not knowing if TOPS will be available for them to start college in 3 months, with nursing home residents facing eviction in less than 60 days, with parents of profoundly disabled children fearing the loss of home help that enables them to live, the trio of House leaders cling to their “wait and see” scheme. Harris, who spoke to the Baton Rouge Press Club last Monday, made it clear they will hold out against any revenue-raising as long as — and as completely as — possible. “We need to keep from extracting more money from our citizens and their families,” he insisted. “The most practical way is to deal with only the revenue we have at this time, and figure out exactly what the holes are. That’s real numbers. “After all, we were all told last August that the fiscal cliff was $1.5-billion. By January it was down to one-billion dollars, and now it’s only $485-million, according to our Appropriations chairman’s calculations,” he concluded, implying it could drop even further if they just wait a bit longer. That last number — the $485-million – is markedly smaller than the one officially adopted by the official Revenue Estimating Conference forecast on April 18, which was $648-million. Neither Harris nor Henry have been able to satisfactorily explain how their number got to be so much smaller. They just keep preaching it as gospel. And speaking of the REC, it’s this reporter’s expectation that House leadership will continue to back away from early adjournment until after the REC’s next meeting, the end of this month – in hopes the fiscal cliff will magically melt away. Yet as public testimony on the budget in Senate Finance Monday will illustrate, the fear citizens have isn’t going to magically melt away. And when the full House convenes Monday afternoon, the disgruntlement isn’t going to disappear. One avenue of action is available. Change the Speaker, and with him the dynamics of dysfunction. As the governor said, “A good decision timely made is much better than a perfect decision that comes too late.”
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Sue Lincoln
Sue Lincoln is a veteran and widely-respected reporter who has been covering Louisiana politics for nearly three decades. Originally from Long Beach, California, Sue’s career in journalism began on the radio in Los Angeles. After moving to Louisiana, Sue earned her bachelor’s degree. For ten years, from 2000-2010, she was the Assistant News Director at Louisiana Network. Sue also worked as the education reporter for Louisiana Public Broadcasting and has contributed to various state publications as a freelance journalist. But she is perhaps best known as the voice of the popular politics Capitol Access.