We didn’t have to wait long at the beginning of the year to witness what was, and still is, Louisiana’s most significant political story of 2016.
It happened on Jan. 11, a day that was supposed to be owned by Gov. John Bel Edwards and his inauguration team. But before Edwards could even be sworn in, the state House of Representatives voted to install Rep. Taylor Barras of New Iberia as speaker. It was the first time in modern history that the body ignored the wishes of an incoming governor—Edwards had wanted Rep. Walt Leger, a fellow Democrat, to hold the big gavel.
With that floor vote, the GOP-led House upended Edwards’ legislative strategy and created a new set of political dynamics at the Capitol that are still playing out today. It shook Louisiana’s political foundation because governors have always enjoyed a certain amount of control over the House, via the speaker’s office. If a representative voted the wrong way, past governors could strip them of chairmanships and committee assignments. But that privilege ended with Edwards as House Republicans decided to act independently.
The legislative sessions that followed, which collectively kept lawmakers working at the Capitol for more continuous days than any other Legislature since 1812, showed us what this brave, new reality really looked like. The House squared off against not only the governor but also the Senate and it set the political pace for all negotiations.
The biggest takeaway, however, was the governor’s loss of power. Just this month Barras spearheaded a delay in the downgrading of the state’s incoming revenue, despite appeals to the contrary by the Edwards administration. It was yet another signal that 2017 will host another contentious session that will be guided more by what the House does—and not necessarily by what the governor proposes.
Those three legislative sessions earlier this year, held from February through June, represented another political mile marker in 2016. I’ve read Greek tragedies that had better endings than those sessions, one of which concluded with Senate President John Alario in tears and another that adjourned without a capital outlay bill being passed.
Rather than making permanent fixes to the state budget during these sessions, lawmakers instead approved $1.5 billion in temporary taxes that expire in 2018. That’s the main reason why the regular session next year will hold so much tension. The sessions of 2016, much like the election of Barras as speaker, also gave us a good idea at what the rest of this current term will look like.
Louisiana’s other top political moments from the past year came courtesy of our November and December federal elections. Treasurer John Kennedy is now U.S. Sen.-elect John Kennedy and he is preparing to take his place among Louisiana’s premier power brokers. But Kennedy is also going to leave a void at the State Capitol, where he has crafted a political brand as the go-to fiscal hawk. How Kennedy fits into the Republican leadership structure here and in D.C. will be interesting to watch unfold—almost as interesting as it will be to see how he legislates after years of being an administrator.
Making a more permanent exit this year were U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who will be replaced by Kennedy, and Congressmen Charles Boustany and John Fleming, who gave up their House seats to run against Kennedy. That’s a serious drain of experience on the Hill for Louisiana, but it was somewhat balanced out by Congressman Steve Scalise’s re-election as House majority whip and Congressman Cedric Richmond’s election as the new chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Congressman-elect Clay Higgins’ defeat of Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle also sent shockwaves through the state’s political class this year. The 3rd Congressional District contest marked what could be an end for Angelle’s ambitions to become governor. It likewise opened up a door for Higgins, a political newcomer who in part got elected on his name recognition, a smart social media strategy and a wave of voters who wanted to see a change in government starting at the top of the ballot with President-elect Donald Trump.
It was a year of political theater in Louisiana mixed with drama and heartbreak. Historic flooding put a good deal of the state under water and police-involved shootings in Baton Rouge created national headlines. Throughout it all our sometimes-puzzling and always-colorful politics kept hammering us on our heads. There was no escape to be had.
In fact, the best part about 2016 is that it’s almost over—and not a moment too soon.