Distrust Reigns Supreme At Capitol

Many in the state House of Representatives don’t trust Gov. John Bel Edwards’ vision for Louisiana, which probably doesn’t come as a shock to his administration.

That’s because the governor, in turn, is highly skeptical about what might come out of the House during the ongoing regular session. And he’s not shy about voicing those concerns.

On the other end of the Capitol’s first floor, members of the Senate are losing confidence in the House’s ability to coalesce around a single plan of attack for the state’s mounting revenue and spending problems.

At the same time, conservatives in the lower chamber aren’t exactly eager to negotiate with the Senate — some even went as far as to sever lines of communication with senators during the February special session.

So many bridges have been burned at the Capitol over the past 16 months that it sometimes feels like there aren’t any left. You can sense it inside the building’s public cafeteria in the mornings and at the various cocktails parties in the evenings.

The good-times, same-team vibe that used to define the Louisiana Legislature is being supplanted by bitter, partisan politics. You’ve no doubt heard or read about this line of thinking at one time or another since the current term commenced.

But you may not know that other Capitol players are stuck inside this uncomfortable storyline as well.

The staff attorneys, secretaries and economists that do the heavy lifting in Baton Rouge are being dragged into conflicts between the House and Senate and, more frequently, into dustups between Republicans and Democrats. They’ve gone from being neutral participants to political pawns in a game that very few of them want to play.

If there was enough money to make it happen overnight, the Legislature would likely be tempted to create separate staffs — one for each party, like other states have already done. Given the landscape, it’s not an outlandish notion.

Then there’s the Capitol’s lobbying corps. Last year saw an angry lawmaker publicly hurling accusations at a longtime lobbyist during a committee meeting, prompting headlines of improprieties that remain unfounded.

You can add that incident to the many reasons why special interests, to some degree, care less about which bills are being introduced and more about which lawmakers are going to carry them. To hear longtime influencers tell it, legislators who are willing to compromise in earnest are slowly becoming an extinct breed.

Statehouse reporters, many will surely be glad to learn, have not been excluded from the crossfire. The governor, when addressing members of the press, particularly last year, has personally called out journalists for stories he felt were flimsy. The GOP leadership in the House has also become more selective this session in doling out interviews.

To be fair, the mainstream coverage coming out of the Capitol these days includes more politics than ever, with perspective writing periodically peppering otherwise straight reporting. As such, some lawmakers feel like they’re not getting a fair shake.

This theme of distrust extends to voters and citizens as well. Just glance at your social media feeds, where reporters are tagged as the enemy and lawmakers are lambasted in ways that are occasionally vile and personal.

If anyone is praying that this mood lifts from the Bayou State during the regular session that adjourns on June 8, they should probably forget about it right now. A political door has been kicked open in Baton Rouge and an immense amount of force and cajoling will be required to slam it shut. (That may indeed be an impossible task.)

But don’t feel sorry for anyone. This is, after all, politics. Moreover, it’s politics in Louisiana, where the faint of heart are unemployable and those lacking gamesmanship are, on average, ineffective. That may not be the reality we want, of course, but it’s the one we’re faced with today.

Please feel free, however, to embrace the uncertainty and fear. This trend of escalated party politics and widespread distrust in the legislative process is still slightly novel in Baton Rouge. So we have no idea how detrimental the byproducts — meaning the budget shortcuts, failed reform efforts and frayed relationships — will be for Louisiana in the long run.

The rules of engagement have simply changed at the Capitol. The House is attacking the governor, the Senate is taking swings at the House, lawmakers are bad-mouthing special interests, reporters are taking their lumps and voters are questioning the integrity of everyone involved.

It’s difficult to see how smart policies might emerge from this mess, which is why injecting some goodwill into the legislative process might be more important than anything else at this juncture.

Yet with a quarter of the regular session already behind us, time may be running out.

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