MELINDA DESLATTE | Associated Press
Pressing to assert their constitutional independence, Louisiana’s Republican legislative leaders are doing something Monday their predecessors have only done once before: convening a special session that they called themselves.
The simple fact of lawmakers convening their own special session would draw little attention in many states, but the decision in Louisiana is a historic one after decades of lawmakers deferring to governors to decide when and how special sessions should happen.
It’s the latest sign that Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder are demonstrating an unusually united front for Louisiana’s House and Senate leadership — and that they won’t be taking their leads from Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.
The GOP House and Senate leaders have worked together on setting priorities, developing spending plans and handling their business, demonstrating a tighter coordination than their predecessors have traditionally shown.
Cortez and Schexnayder announced Thursday they have created an outside organization called Leading Louisiana to promote their joint legislative work and agenda, through a nonprofit commonly called a “dark money” group because its donors aren’t disclosed.
The collaborative approach highlights the clear break the majority-Republican House and Senate have made from the governor’s office in the new term that started in January, even as Cortez and Schexnayder have talked of wanting to work with Edwards on state priorities.
In prior terms, friction often has existed between the House and Senate, and governors could use that to their advantage. In addition, legislative leaders regularly gave great deference to the wishes and agenda of a governor.
During Edwards’ first term, Republican House leaders including then-Speaker Taylor Barras frequently sparred with Edwards over financial issues. But GOP then-Senate President John Alario was Edwards’ closest legislative ally. Alario helped kill bills Edwards opposed and push through budgetary approaches the governor wanted.
Term limits forced both Barras and Alario from their seats, and the new term has ended many of the divisions among the chambers. Packed with new members, the House and Senate are more Republican, more conservative and more collaborative than in previous terms.
Now, budget legislation that Edwards opposes involving federal coronavirus funds and feuds with the treasurer have advanced with ease. Business-backed priorities not championed by Edwards have sailed through the House and Senate. And lawmakers are considering various tax breaks that the governor has suggested are too costly amid the virus outbreak.
By calling the special session themselves through a petition of a majority of House and Senate members, lawmakers set the 41-item agenda and the 30-day length of the session, rather than letting Edwards dictate those terms to them.
The session will start at 6:01 p.m. Monday, immediately after the regular session ends. The agenda includes work on next year’s budget, the spending of federal coronavirus aid and the expansion of tax break programs that lawmakers say would help virus-impacted businesses, among other items.
The last — and only — time lawmakers called themselves into a special session was in 2011, to redraw the state’s political district lines. But even though they took the lead, lawmakers at the time acknowledged they called the session in coordination with then-Gov. Bobby Jindal.
This time, Edwards said he knew lawmakers planned to convene a special session — but he wasn’t involved in the decision-making.
The governor said he didn’t object to lawmakers calling themselves into session, noting that the constitution gives them that authority. But he did suggest the lengthy agenda that legislative leaders set for the monthlong session seemed “problematic.”
All the governor could do was offer this thoughts, since the plans were crafted without him.
Still, it’s unclear if the Republican leaders who are more stridently asserting their independence will reach another benchmark this term: overriding a governor’s veto.
Lawmakers rarely override a governor’s veto in Louisiana, a move that takes a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate. Only two gubernatorial vetoes have been overridden in modern times: one veto by Buddy Roemer in 1991 and another by Edwin Edwards in 1993.
With the House and Senate likely to send the current Gov. Edwards at least a few bills he doesn’t like, bill vetoes could be on the way. But while Republicans have a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate to reverse a gubernatorial veto, they fall two votes short of that benchmark in the House.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte