Musical Chairs At The Capitol

More than a third of the lawmakers now serving in the Louisiana Legislature will be forced to abandon their seats in 2019. That means 36 representatives out of the 105-member House will be making their exit at the end of this term, along with 16 out of 39 senators.

This deadline has many lawmakers racing the clock and searching for a place to land. For example, some term-limited members are openly looking for another office either higher up the political food chain, like a statewide post, or one that’s laterally located, like a parish council seat.

And in what amounts to a clear sign that elections really are starting earlier than ever, there are already at least a half dozen declared candidates actively campaigning for legislative seats that won’t become available for another 32 months or so — all connected to term limits.

Of course, with this current crop of lawmakers, we haven’t had to wait around long this term for some election action. In just the past 12 months alone — the first full year of this legislative term — five special elections have either already been held, had to be called or were in some way triggered or signaled.

The next vacancy will come courtesy of Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley, who was appointed by the governor as wildlife and fisheries secretary during the holiday break. Then there’s Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Shreveport, who is about to become Congressman Mike Johnson from the 4th District. Former Rep. Tom Willmott was elected to the Kenner City Council last fall and former Reps. Bryan Adams and Joe Lopinto took a shared bow from elected life months earlier in 2016.

These special elections, however, were not entirely related to term limits. Simply put, better jobs just came along in many of these instances. But it helps underscore a growing chorus of concern about morale levels in the Legislature. It’s jokingly being said at fundraisers and cocktail parties that every member of the Legislature is either developing or implementing an exit strategy.

The job of a legislator has become a grueling one over the past year. A partisan divide has taken hold of the process and there’s little chance of reversing that trend. The fiscal problems are about as challenging as they have ever been. Moreover, the hours are longer, the people are grumpier and the view never changes. No wonder so many people are leaning toward the door.

In fact, there could be two more special elections just around the corner for the Legislature. Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, is likely to make a bid for a seat on the Jefferson Parish Council and is considered by local politicos to be an early favorite.

Plus, there are at a minimum six lawmakers thinking about running for state treasurer to replace U.S. Sen.-elect John Kennedy, including Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Mandeville; Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte; Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans; Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia; Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington; and Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Metairie.

House members who are term limited are in a much better position than their counterparts in the Senate. It has become a natural progression for a representative to seek office in the upper chamber, but it’s rare for a senator to downgrade his or her position to a House seat, although it has been done. In 2019 we my see two of the Legislature’s longest-serving members — Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi — give it a shot.

It’s actually in the Senate where the biggest shift will take place with this next round of term limits in 2019. That’s when 41 percent of the Senate will be replaced. It’s also likely to grow more conservative in the process, a trend that has already started. Whereas the upper chamber has always been a backstop for any sitting governor, it could begin to act more independently next term, especially with Alario leaving a top leadership void.

Term limits have certainly left their mark on the Louisiana Legislature since being enacted in 1995. The constitutional provision was added as a way to bring fresh voices to the Capitol, and that has definitely been accomplished. But we’ve also lost institutional knowledge along the way and a new kind of politics have been invited into the Capitol — politics that encourage more job-shopping and extend campaign seasons.

Yet this current term of the Legislature — with 52 lawmakers out of 144 on their way out — gives us one more experiment with term limits to record. How many are actually ready to ride off into the sunset? Will voting patterns in the House and Senate change as the months roll by? Will we continue to see vacancies ahead of the 2019 deadline?

The answer to the final question will most likely be delivered in the affirmative. Everything else will just take time, which is appropriate, since time appears to be the chief enemy of legislators heading into this new year.

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