This will be a bit of a grab-bag post catching our readers up with a few items of interest as the Louisiana legislature reconfigures itself following the significant changes voters demanded in the October and November elections. There appears to be movement toward the selection of the leadership in both houses, as Page Cortez has commitments from more than 20 of the 39 members of the Senate, while Sherman Mack won the endorsement of the House Republican Delegation by capturing 39 of its 68 votes in a meeting on Friday.
There is pressure being applied at present for fourteen more members of the delegation to come across and endorse Mack as House Speaker, and a very particular reason for it – with 39 votes, Mack now appears to be the only option for a Republican Speaker to be named by a Republican majority.
What does that mean? It’s been a bedrock principle, announced as soon as Republicans completed a massive rout of Democrats in this year’s legislative elections, capturing 27 of 39 Senate seats and 68 of 105 House seats despite Eddie Rispone’s close loss in the gubernatorial election, that members of the GOP delegation decide the legislative leadership. We’ve had discussions on this subject here at the Hayride – see one by LAGOP chairman Louis Gurvich and Sen. Conrad Appel, our own endorsement of it, and a letter by Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy about the Speaker’s race for more.
Historically, successful House Speaker candidates have counted on the support of the governor to build majority coalitions and, when the legislative seats were closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, there would be a great deal of deal-making across the partisan aisle. Four years ago when Taylor Barras ended up as House Speaker, it was the first time in modern memory that the body made an independent choice and it was also the first time in a while when the minority party wasn’t able to influence the race. Democrats got behind Walt Leger as their choice for speaker, while Republicans were mostly behind Cameron Henry. Henry outplayed Leger, and Gov. John Bel Edwards who was backing him, by throwing his support behind Barras who brought along enough extra votes to make a majority.
As of right now, with Mack getting 39 votes from the delegation (he’s at 40 total votes, as we understand it, because independent Rep. Roy Daryl Adams has reportedly given Mack a commitment), without some sort of Cameron Henry-Taylor Barras maneuver taking place at the last minute the only way for anyone to win the race would be to cobble together a coalition of the 35 Democrats, independent Joe Marino, his or her own vote and 16 other Republicans to get to 53 votes and a majority.
That would be possible, theoretically, if second-place contender Clay Schexnayder – who managed 17 votes at Friday’s delegation meeting – were to attempt it. Mack’s supporters, who include most of the more outspoken and higher-profile conservatives in the House (more on that below), have been expressing concerns Schexnayder would do just that. But Schexnayder has been very firm in his public pronouncements that the Speakership must be decided in the Republican delegation room, and it wouldn’t seem likely that he could get to 53 votes were he go back on his statements. Several of Schexnayder’s Friday votes would abandon him if he went that route, Ray Garofalo, who kept himself alive as a Speaker candidate by giving himself a vote in Friday’s meeting, wouldn’t support Schexnayder if he did and few to none of the eleven others – one who abstained from Friday’s vote and ten more who didn’t make the meeting – would go against their party.
There is even a rumor which has it that seven of Schexnayder’s supporters went over to Mack after Friday’s vote, out of a sense of agreement that the delegation should choose its speaker.
Meaning it’s probably more of a danger that Mack would fish across the aisle for the half-dozen or so votes he would need to pull a majority of the House behind his bid for Speaker than someone else would be able to do a deal with Edwards and the Democrats voting in a bloc and pull a few Republicans to get to 53. And we don’t see much danger of that happening. If Mack is really at 47 votes and only needs six more to get to a majority, then the real question is what offer he makes to Schexnayder in order to reel in his support and finish the process.
But there remains the possibility, however slim, that Garofalo might yet emerge as a Taylor Barras-type compromise candidate if in fact Mack can’t get to 53. If, for example, Mack began trying to get Democrat votes and in so doing alienated Republican supporters in equal measure, the door could be open for a third party to pick up a majority through the delegation. That isn’t likely, but it is possible.
Mack and Cortez being elected as head of their respective legislative households would make John Bel Edwards the least powerful governor Louisiana has had in the past century. He would become the gubernatorial Mr. Irrelevant, and nothing Edwards presents would be assured of passage.
That said, if you ask around among some of the conservative organizations in Louisiana who played roles in electing conservatives to the House and Senate, you will hear more than a little trepidation about Sherman Mack as the Speaker. We didn’t spend all that time and money to get the best legislature in the state’s history, the lament generally goes, so that we could get a billboard lawyer from Denham Springs to run the place.
Because yes, Sherman Mack is a billboard lawyer. His face is on outdoor advertising in Denham Springs.
And while Mack’s record is generally a fairly decent one – he had a 94 percent score on LABI’s 2019 scorecard, and an 83 percent score for the past four-year term, while the Louisiana Family Forum has him at 100 percent for the 2019 session – there are a couple of things some conservatives really don’t like about him.
For one thing, Mack was a “no” vote back in 2012 when Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform package went through the legislature. The reason for it, that Mack is aligned with the local governmental people in Livingston Parish who don’t want school choice in Baton Rouge because that might make middle-class people less interested in moving out to the eastern suburbs of town, is not indicative of enlightened statesmanship. That has been a sore spot for some.
And for another, the fact Mack is a billboard lawyer means nobody trusts him on tort reform, which is the single biggest thing conservative and business groups want done next year. So much so that they don’t care whether Edwards will try to veto it; they think overriding Edwards’ veto on tort reform is doable, and they’re anxious to get that fight started. If Mack is the Speaker, they think, it’s the only way to sabotage that effort.
We’re not convinced of this, though last week Mack didn’t help things by stating at a public forum that he’s for “fair” tort reform that the governor will sign. That was a dumb statement politically.
We understand Mack is a fairly savvy political operator, and as such our expectation is that he’ll come around to a full understanding of where tort reform rests, and what his role in it ought to be.
A “fair” tort reform plan that Edwards will sign is one defined solely by whether it gets more than 70 votes in the House and 26 in the Senate. Those are the numbers needed to override a veto. Anything which gets those votes, Edwards is going to (1) sign, and (2) glom onto so as to take credit for it. We know this is true because it happened this year when the Legislature, over vituperative objections by Edwards and his people, passed a bill covering people with pre-existing conditions in the event Obamacare is found unconstitutional in the courts. The governor reversed himself the minute that bill picked up more than 80 supporters in the House and more than 30 in the Senate, and he and the Democrat Governors’ Association were busy tweeting his support for the bill.
He’ll do the same on tort reform if it picks up enough support for a veto override, because it would be a very destructive precedent for the Legislature to override one of his vetoes. We’ve asked around, and nobody we’ve talked to can remember a veto being overridden in Louisiana. It does not happen. If it happens to Edwards he had might as well rent a condominium in Orange Beach or Destin and stay there, because his days effectively governing Louisiana are over.
Which means if you’re Sherman Mack and you want to kill tort reform, if in fact you do, what you really want is to push to load up the tort reform package with every last thing the reformers could possibly dream of and bring such radical legislation that not even all of the Republicans can vote for it. Pass it with a majority but not one that is veto-proof, and then let Edwards kill it. You’ve emerged as a hero for the tort reform side, and you didn’t make a bit of policy.
The determining factor on tort reform isn’t Sherman Mack. It’s how many members of the Legislative Black Caucus in the House decide to sign on to it. And several likely will, because tort reform which lowers car insurance rates would be perhaps the single most meaningful deliverable their constituents could get next year.
Of course, the Black Caucus doesn’t quite yet understand the new dynamic. Over the weekend there was complaining from the LBC over the lack of “inclusion” inherent in the Republicans shutting them out of a seat at the table on the Speaker’s race. But those complaints weren’t exactly made with good standing; word had it that the Black Caucus was demanding chairmanships of seven of the 16 House committees, including the chairmanship of one of the “money” committees, as the price for their support for a Speaker, and such a ludicrous demand rightly ended any possibility of their participation in the selection of a Speaker.
But another story from last week made the Black Caucus’ demands for “inclusion” even more laughable. Apparently the Black Caucus in the Senate, which is 10 of the 12 Democrats left in that body, had a meeting last week. Democrat Gary Smith, who is white, showed up thinking it was a meeting of the Senate Democratic delegation, and he was informed there won’t be a Democratic delegation for the next term, just the Black Caucus. That effectively makes Smith and Jay Luneau, the two white Democrats in the Senate, functionally independents and, with 27 Republicans out of 39 members, 100 percent completely irrelevant and incapable of pushing just about anything to passage.
By Christmas we should have a more detailed knowledge of what the legislative picture will be. Elections do have consequences, though, and much of the conservative direction the legislature will move in definitively flows from the rout in October and November.