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Analysis: New alliance emerges between House, Senate leaders

February 23, 2020
Originally posted on Associated Press

Beyond the dozens of new faces shaking up the Louisiana Legislature, an unusual spirit of collaboration between the new House speaker and Senate president could rework lawmaking dynamics across the entire four-year term of state government.

Leaders of the two legislative chambers haven’t necessarily worked together on the crafting of bills over the years — and while many House speakers and Senate presidents have given lip service to the idea of partnership, their practices have been much different. 

More often than not, friction has existed between the House and Senate.

Those frayed relations intensified over the last four years, as Republican House leaders including then-Speaker Taylor Barras frequently sparred with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards over financial issues while GOP Senate President John Alario became Edwards’ closest legislative ally.

But term limits forced the exits of Barras and Alario in January — and their Republican replacements, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, seem to be forming a tighter bond in their new leadership roles.

Cortez and Schexnayder regularly talk of cooperation with each other, and they’ve taken similar positions on some of their first key financial positions and talking points.

“Clay and I have a similar appreciation for teamwork and for working together,” said Cortez of Lafayette, sitting next to the House speaker at a recent talk at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry annual meeting.

In that discussion, Schexnayder repeatedly followed Cortez’s comments with statements such as, “I feel the same,” or “I agree.”

That could force Edwards to rework his approach with lawmakers, if he’ll face a united front between the GOP-led House and Senate, rather than divisions among the chambers.

Edwards often worked out deals with Alario that helped kill House-passed bills the governor didn’t want to reach his desk, and the former Senate president also helped muscle through budgetary approaches Edwards preferred. Those days appear to be done.

Already the changing dynamics have shown up in legislative financial decisions.

Cortez sided with Schexnayder over the Edwards administration in refusing to adopt income projections the governor wanted — and economists recommended — to build next year’s budget. Schexnayder proposed a smaller forecast increase, and Cortez voted with the House speaker. No agreement has been reached.

On Thursday, the legislative leaders again opposed the Edwards administration on a significant financial issue.

Cortez and Schexnayder backed GOP state Treasurer John Schroder and other Republican officials in their decision to block one of the nation’s largest banks, Citigroup, from working on multimillion-dollar state borrowing deals. The financial giant has enacted firearm restriction policies for corporate customers that have drawn ire from Schroder and others.

Despite the disagreements, the governor and both legislative leaders have repeatedly struck a compromising tone. All three have said they expect to eventually reach a deal, for example, on the income forecast.

Edwards said he’s confident he can work with Cortez and Schexnayder and thinks they can find common ground on an array of issues. And at the meeting with the business leaders’ organization, Cortez and Schexnayder said they wanted to work with Edwards.

“I think that’s the way we move the state forward,” said Schexnayder, of Gonzales.

Cortez agreed: “If we work together and we don’t work with the governor, then it’s going to be fatal, the state won’t move forward.”

Still, the new Senate president cautioned that Edwards needs to acknowledge the strong GOP majorities he’ll be working with in each chamber. The Senate has a more than two-thirds Republican majority that can override an Edwards veto if GOP lawmakers vote together, while the House is two votes short of that mark.

Perhaps most tellingly, the new House and Senate leaders stressed the independence of the Louisiana Legislature, which until recently, often functioned as an extension of the executive branch, rather than as a constitutionally separate body.

Cortez said he wants to leave “behind as a legacy that the Legislature becomes a true third branch of government and it has its own positions.”

And in the spirit of their collaborative approach, Schexnayder agreed: “I want to leave a stamp these four years that the House and the Senate was independent and that we worked together, all of us, House members, Senate members, both sides of the aisle.”