Compromise Caucus A Grand Experiment

Bernie Pinsonat of Southern Media and Opinion Research is fond of saying, “If you’re in the middle in Louisiana politics then you’re roadkill.”

Things do tend to die if they piddle around too much in the middle of Louisiana’s highways, both conventionally and politically paved. It's just too easy to become a target if you’re in the middle of the road. Plain and simple.

But there’s a quiet and likely small movement afoot in the state Legislature that dispenses with such notions. The thinking of those involved is that the middle of the road is the only place to be, particularly in the GOP-dominated House.

When this term of the Louisiana Legislature comes to an end, one its lasting legacies will be the bitter battles that pitted Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Senate against the conservative House.

It has only been a year and a half already we’ve seen the Senate president brought to tears, a regular session adjourned without a statewide construction plan, another concluded without an actual budget and headlines that screamed — SCREAMED! — drama of all sorts.

So, yeah. Anywhere on the political spectrum would be better than where our state government is parked right now. Whether the proverbial middle is that prime locale will be a grand experiment worth keeping tabs on.

Here's what's going on... A small working group of state representatives met for the first time this week to begin laying the foundation for a new House caucus that will strive for compromise in the increasingly divided House.

It has been called the Centrist Caucus by one of the lawmakers involved and the Middle Caucus by another. Someone else has recommended calling it the Louisiana Caucus. But the name doesn’t matter. The fact that it’s even happening is more important.

“The goal is to come up with a package of bills and try to have 70 or 71 votes in place,” said Rep. Gene Reynolds of Minden, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus and the man charged with holding the party line as the minority leader. “There’s an urgency now that wasn’t there before. This is doable.”

GOP Rep. Rob Shadoin of Ruston has been trying to put a group together over the past few months and Reynolds and others are offering a helping hand. While the first gathering was slated for Monday, with a dozen or so legislators expected to attend, a subsequent meeting was already being planned for next week as well. “We can’t keep having special sessions and a regular session each year with a lot of activity and no productivity,” said Shadoin.

Another member of the team is Rep. Julie Stokes of Kenner, who was building out a moderate strategy for her state treasurer campaign before her cancer diagnosis forced her out of the race. Stokes, a Republican, was actually looking to establish a coalition of centrists when she heard about Shadoin’s efforts. “I’m trying to repurpose the work that I had put into the campaign into a new caucus of problem-solvers in the House,” Stokes said via text.

The optics are worth taking note of — and the storylines will sprout with ease if any real momentum is gained. (Here’s a one-sentence story pitch for editors: As the state faces another budget test in 2018, known names from the state House are ready and willing to peel off from others in their own parties.) It’s a marketable concept at this given moment, and will be even more so once the next session convenes.

Just think back to the Fiscal Hawks of yesteryear — that influential bloc of House votes that during the administration of former Gov. Bobby Jindal advocated for budget and spending changes. It all started with a group of four freshmen in 2008, and eventually swelled to 28 or so members that ranged from committed to not-so-committed.

But they managed to gum up the process, get some key concessions and, most memorably, generate a ton of press coverage. A few of the early members even built brands out of the political exercise, with Rep. Cameron Henry of Metairie moving on to become the House Appropriations Committee chair and former Rep. John Schroder of Covington running strong for treasurer with the same Fiscal Hawk mantras. “You’ve got to have worker bees who are ready to work and not ready to push their own agendas,” Schroder said of start-up caucuses in the Legislature. “You have to be willing to grind it out.”

That means success doesn’t often arrive overnight.

If the numbers do come together for the Centrist-Middle-Moderate-Louisiana Caucus, it will likely be heavily-weighted toward Democrats, of which there are 40 in the House, many of them willing to compromise on the budget and taxes. There are 60 Republicans in the chamber, meanwhile, and that’s the contingency worth watching. Any moderate movement will need a significant buy-in from the GOP ranks. There are also, of course, three independents in the House.

All of the legislators involved in this push to the center certainly know that the middle is a dangerous place to be in Louisiana — this greening and watery land where party diehards and special interest groups like the lanes as they’re currently carved. Thankfully those same legislators are willing to accept the political risks. Because anything is better than what we’ve seen over the past year and a half.

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