Deconstructing The Advocate’s Broadside Attack On Taylor Barras

This morning a number of state legislators contacted this writer enraged after having read Tyler Bridges’ Advocate article “Uncovering who’s really in charge of the Louisiana House” in Sunday’s edition, complaining that the piece was inaccurate at best, biased at least and most likely a cooked-up John Bel Edwards hit job against Louisiana House Speaker Taylor Barras.

Having read the article, I’d have to say they’re right. This was one of the most poorly-disguised, openly partisan pieces I’ve seen, ranking right up there with the worst of Bridges’ attacks on David Vitter during the 2015 gubernatorial campaign. It reads as though it was written by Edwards’ media flack Richard Carbo, who almost assuredly was a source.

What’s wrong with the piece? We would have to go through the whole thing to outline just how thorough a hit job it was. So we will. Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for a trip through the pro-JBE bias of the Louisiana mainstream media…

They thought they had a deal.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, Senate President John Alario and House Speaker Taylor Barras had just met on Feb. 19 in the governor’s fourth-floor office in the State Capitol, three days before the end of a special session called to resolve a short-term budget deficit. The three men had agreed on how to resolve the key sticking point: The Legislature would use $99 million from its rainy day fund to plug the budget hole.

At least that’s what Edwards and Alario believed. Instead, they heard Barras say publicly the next day that he, the Senate president and the governor didn’t yet have an agreement.

Perhaps Edwards and Alario were disappointed because they assumed Barras would just knuckle under, and he wasn’t sold on the idea. Or maybe Barras didn’t want to appear obstinate, but knew that using one-time money to fund recurring expenses was a loser with the fiscal conservatives in the House and didn’t see any purpose in sitting in a meeting taking lectures from Edwards and his henchman from the Senate.

Here’s what one legislator I talked to said in response to this: “Taylor is very reserved. I can’t see him agreeing to anything without saying he needs to bring it back to the Republican leadership and talking to them about it. He may not have shot it down right away, but I doubt he said he agreed with them. He definitely would have wanted something for it.

He has often said the Governor is obstinate and will not negotiate.” Emphasis mine.

Alario and Edwards were furious, believing that Barras had walked away from the agreed-upon $99 million figure after getting opposition from two powerful lawmakers: Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria, who chairs the House Republican caucus, and Rep. Cameron Henry, who chairs the budget-writing committee. The two men favored taking millions less from the fund.

Alario and Edwards were so angry that they passed word that they would not back down from the $99 million, even if that meant blowing up the special session. In the end, they got their way: On the session’s final day, Barras publicly endorsed their number after two tick sheets — one by a Republican, the other by a Democrat — showed that the House rank and file sided with Edwards and Alario. The Legislature finally approved the measure, and lawmakers went home.

So this is a story about how Louisiana’s governor and his floor leader in the Senate once again ran roughshod over Louisiana fiscal responsibility by passing a big-government budget over the objections of the House, right?

But the episode, and others like it, give rise to one of the main story lines for the 60-day regular legislative session that begins Monday: Who, exactly, is in charge of the Louisiana House?

It’s not an idle question. The decisions made by the House — and indeed the entire Legislature — affect every Louisiana resident and business. Over the next two months, legislators will pass a budget that spends nearly $10 billion in money from Louisiana residents, and they will pass dozens of laws affecting taxes, the environment, crime, education and other matters.

Barras is facing a major challenge this year: how to win enough votes for a plan to head off a huge budget hole when $1.3 billion in temporary taxes will expire next year.

Translation: Either Taylor Barras agrees to move tax-and-spend bills the governor and Alario want passed, or everything is his fault and he’s a weak leader.

On paper, it’s clear who’s in charge of the House: Barras, who was a little-known legislator from New Iberia until he emerged as a compromise choice to become speaker 15 months ago. Elected by his fellow Republicans, who hold a majority of the House, Barras runs the show every day.

Somehow it’s a bad thing that a majority-Republican House elected a Republican speaker. From one of our legislative sources: “Having an independent speaker is the best thing to happen to the House in the last 100 years. We are finally a separate branch of government as the constitution envisioned.”

But interviews with more than a dozen political insiders — administration officials, senators, House members and others who closely follow the legislative process — show that Barras’ hold over the 105-member House is unusually tenuous, thanks to a range of factors: political polarization, the atypical way in which he got the job and his gentlemanly personality.

Bridges didn’t talk to Henry or Harris, because they’ve both more or less given up on giving him quotes. And they’re not alone, because we’ve run across multiple members of the Legislature who have complained about being misquoted, in an agenda-driven fashion, by Bridges. Just a week ago there was an incident of sorts along these lines in which Bridges took a statement from Sen. Rick Ward to the tune that the latter is in favor of a tax code which is simpler and has lower rates but with fewer exemptions and used it as evidence Ward supports Edwards’ gross receipts tax proposal, which Ward vehemently denies. Which means the sources for this story are Edwards’ administration and those who support it – and it also means that if the piece is an attack on Barras, it’s Edwards and his camp attacking him as a means of pressuring him into roping the House into line behind the governor’s legislative agenda.

As a result, Harris and Henry frequently undercut him in ways that would have been unthinkable in the regimes of previous speakers.

It causes great frustration for Edwards and for Republicans willing to work with the Democratic governor.

Which is a relatively small number of Republicans, particularly in the House. But you can absolutely bet that Bridges talked to those. Interestingly, though, Bridges’ sources – like Rob Shadoin, who he almost assuredly talked to for this piece, according to three Republican House members we talked to Sunday – aren’t exceptionally well-thought-of among Louisiana’s House Republican delegation.

From one of our sources: “The ‘moderates’ [Bridges] references are really liberals who backed John Bel and are bitter because they are not in any leadership positions now. Thank goodness.”

“He won’t move until he gets approval from the ‘shadow government,’ ” said a senior Edwards administration official who, like others, asked not to be named to avoid upsetting Barras. “It’s never been like this. It’s hard to reach a consensus and get things done. Usually a speaker or president is able to deliver their votes. They get what they want. You have to have a leader who tells people what to do. You have to assert your leadership. But he can’t make the decision until someone gives him the green light.”

Usually the governor hand-picks his legislative leaders, who are beholden to him. Barras was duly elected by a majority of the House, and they – not Edwards – are his constituency. The “senior Edwards administration official” whose panties are in such a bunch as to be whining to Bridges about Barras’ inability to deliver votes for a policy agenda the majority of Louisianans don’t favor – and if you don’t buy that, then you’re free to explain why Edwards’ endorsed candidates have lost basically every statewide and legislative election since he started pushing for higher taxes and more state spending – is not someone Barras answers to.

One factor behind Barras’ weak hand, everyone agrees, is the rise of political partisanship in Louisiana, which seems to be a nationwide trend. With it has come the rise of polarized “no” caucuses on the left and especially on the right that oppose new government initiatives.

In Washington, the far-right House Freedom Caucus recently killed President Donald Trump’s effort to undo President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, with its insistence on not settling for anything less than totally repealing the measure.

Repeal of Obamacare gets majority support. The Obamacare Lite plan the Freedom Caucus killed had just 17 percent public support. Starting to see a pattern here? As in these “radical,” “far-right” types aren’t so radical after all, and perhaps somebody else is out of touch with the majority of the folks.

In Louisiana, up to 25 anti-tax and anti-spending conservatives in the House consistently vote no on tax and budget measures, rarely proposing their own solutions. The “no” caucus handcuffs Barras’ efforts to cobble together enough votes — particularly on tax measures, which require at least 70 votes.

In other words, there is no consensus for higher taxes – which would explain why the House has such trouble voting for them.

“You have people coming in with hard philosophical views who won’t move off of them,” Alario, R-Westwego, said in an interview. “It’s not good for democracy. You need give and take. If everyone digs in, nothing happens.”

As opposed to Alario, who has a reputation for having no principles whatsoever and being just as comfortable pushing Bobby Jindal’s agenda as Edwards’. So long as he gets to run the Senate and wet his beak at the legislative stream, that is.

Here’s a question – how come, based on the bad electoral results and failure to achieve consensus in the House, it’s not Edwards with the “hard philosophical views?”

At times, Harris has led the “no” caucus against the governor. A second-term lawmaker from Alexandria who owns convenience stores, a farm and other commercial property, Harris, 55, has told associates privately that he is interested in running for governor. He did not respond to four requests from The Advocate for an interview.

State Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, who frequently butts heads with Harris, said he has come to recognize Harris’ influence.

“When you have to piece together something, he’s the one who gets it done,” Jones said.

Sam Jones, who was Edwards’ seatmate in the House, is the source for attack on Lance Harris. Jones is also the author of Edwards’ completely doomed gross receipts tax bill. In other words, this is Edwards speaking about Harris.

Henry, 42, a business consultant and third-term legislator from Metairie, appears to lead the anti-tax and anti-spending crowd. He represents one of the most conservative districts in Louisiana, a district that has minimal need for government assistance, and he is angling to run for a conservative state Senate seat from Metairie in 2019. He did not respond to five requests for an interview.

Henry made a strong bid to be elected speaker, traveling the state during the 2015 election season to garner support from his colleagues. But on the night before the newly seated House would make the selection in January 2016, senior Republicans concluded that Henry didn’t have the necessary 53 votes because not enough moderate Republicans would support him.

Edwards, meanwhile, was pushing state Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, and believed Leger had the votes thanks to Republican support. Governors had traditionally chosen or blessed the House’s choice as speaker.

But senior Republicans wanted to elect one of their own. So, working with a group of freshmen voting as a bloc, they settled on Barras, someone whom everyone liked because of his easy-going, low-key manner. Henry stepped aside, and Barras defeated Leger, 56-49.

What’s not said is that Henry was in contact with Barras and helped orchestrate the eleventh-hour switch that broke the deadlock and made Barras Speaker. Remember, this is a piece about the stubbornness of the conservatives in the House and their inability to get things done, and not about the unreasonable John Bel Edwards trying to force an unpopular agenda down the throats of duly-elected House members.

Barras took the job with several handicaps.

While he managed Iberia Bank’s operations in Iberia Parish, Barras had never been a leader in the House. He hadn’t even chaired a committee. And he hadn’t had the opportunity to line up his own legislative team — and get their commitment to vote with him on tough measures — as previous speakers had done.

“The way he got the job was by default,” said a former senior Republican lawmaker. “I almost feel sorry for Taylor. Everybody likes him. But he’s drinking water out of a firehose. He’s trying to do the best thing he can. There are too many chiefs. Nobody knows who is in charge.”

This is, to put it succintly, crap. Barras’ “handicap” is that he’s not hand-picked by a governor who can throw goodies and pork to buy off leges. Barras represents legislative independence, which up until five minutes ago was the sorely needed ingredient to fix Louisiana’s dysfunctional politics and corrupt governance.

In some ways, the speaker has the powers of a head football coach, who chooses his players and calls the plays. The speaker decides who chairs each committee, who sits on each committee and which bills will be heard each day. But unlike a football coach, he does not have absolute control over his team. Members can defy him and go their own way. Past speakers, however, have enforced discipline by bouncing several renegade members from choice committee assignments. Barras has yet to do that.

In other words, a House Speaker isn’t like a football coach at all.

He had a rocky first year. He had to lead the House in a special session only a month after becoming speaker. Edwards became so frustrated working with Barras — thinking that he had deals with the speaker, only to learn that he didn’t — that the governor vented publicly.

“It’s always been the case in the past that if you have an agreement with the speaker, you know what that gets you,” Edwards told reporters late in the session. “That has not proven to be the case thus far. I know the speaker is working with me in good faith. He is obviously facing some difficulties in the House in getting people to stand with him.”

Or maybe John Bel Edwards is frustrated because he’s incapable of winning any arguments in the legislature and doesn’t appear to have much skill in winning them with the state’s voters, either. This could be a by-product of running an election campaign falsely claiming he was a conservative in opposition to new taxes, while spending the entire cycle demagoguing and harping on his opponent’s 15-year-old marital failings.

That special session nearly collapsed when two revenue-raising bills needed to plug a $1 billion-plus budget deficit got tied up in the House. They didn’t pass until a final frantic 15 minutes. Alario was so frustrated at the near-miss that he teared up and told colleagues that he would talk to Barras about how to do better. (Alario was twice speaker of the House under Gov. Edwin Edwards.)

Because we’re all teary-eyed about John Alario’s problems getting bills passed to raise our taxes. Certainly Taylor Barras must do better to insure tax bills pass in the House.

To be sure, Barras, who did not respond to two requests for an interview, has his defenders.

No kidding. Does he really, now?

“The House is an unruly place,” said state Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe. “He doesn’t have the luxury of using the governor’s office to threaten people as a way to give or take away things, as the Senate does because of Sen. Alario’s relationship with the governor. I think he’s been an effective speaker. He’s been able to synthesize a lot of disparate views. At the end of the day, he’s accomplished things — just not like everybody wants.”

Under Barras’ tenure, the House has cheered conservatives by rejecting numerous tax increases sought by Edwards to end the state’s chronic budget deficits. The governor has complained that House leaders haven’t given him alternatives to pay for vital government services that Republicans also want.

This is a fiction the state’s mainstream media is horrendously complicit in furthering. Talk to legislators, particularly conservative ones, and you will hear a common refrain about the budget – namely, that the numbers given to the legislature are presented from a “30,000-foot level,” and they’re prevented by a lack of support staff or cooperation from the executive branch from being able to drill down to the ground to eliminate waste and duplication. Therefore, true budget reform has been stymied for better than a decade – Jindal was complicit, though he came up with his own cuts to the state budget when needed and didn’t leave much of a trail of breadcrumbs about the process, and Edwards is more so.

Moderate Republicans in the House also chafed under his leadership last year and again during the just-completed special session when he wouldn’t publicly commit to the $99 million rainy day fund, the final piece needed to close the short-term budget gap and end the session.

“I think the speaker is scared of Cameron and the far right wing,” one Republican moderate said recently. “Taylor has to herd cats. It’s not an easy job.”

I’m told this is absolutely Rob Shadoin speaking. Cameron Henry had just short of half the House ready to make him Speaker and he’s the “far right wing,” according to whomever this gadfly might be. He isn’t named, so there is no way to assess his credibility in making the assertion that Barras is afraid of the people who made him the Speaker of the House.

Barras also faced the governor’s wrath on the day before the session ended when he still hadn’t said publicly what he had told Edwards and Alario privately: that he supported the $99 million.

Once again – this is Alario’s and/or Edwards’ contention. It is not an established fact. It is also something a very large number of House members believe is untrue.

“You’re the speaker of the House. It’s time to lead this effort,” the governor told Barras, according to two people familiar with what he said.

The following afternoon, after the tick sheets showed at least two-thirds of the House favored the measure, Barras put it to a vote. He said he could support it because the governor had agreed to a proposal sought by the speaker that called for the Legislature to consider implementing a 3 percent across-the-board spending cut to numerous funds starting July 1.

The bill passed with 92 votes. Like Barras, Henry and Harris voted for it.

In other words, Barras beat Edwards and Alario in a negotiation and got an important policy objective which will decrease state spending in return for accessing the rainy day fund. And, on the eve of the legislative session where that policy objective will loom over budget negotiations, Edwards, Alario and their allies are trashing Barras for it – rather than celebrating the triumph of political negotiation and give-and-take – y’know, like Alario was quoted as saying was necessary? – in coming up with a solution to a budget dispute which wasn’t Edwards’ first choice.

This is very, very poor journalism. It should have been a post at the governor’s website, not an “objective” news article at a newspaper of record in the state’s capitol city. But what informative value it does have is to show just how petulant and vicious John Bel Edwards is – and time will prove what a mistake it was to attack the House Speaker in front of his members as they arrive in Baton Rouge for Monday’s session opening.

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