ALFORD’S OPINION COLUMN: Democrats Still Finding Their Way At Capitol

Being a Democratic member of the Louisiana Legislature isn’t always unicorns, rainbows and lollipops. Sometimes it can get a little rough.

They’re outnumbered on both sides of the Capitol — 41 to 64 in the House and 14 to 25 in the Senate. That means Democrats have to play well with others to obtain majority floor votes; they can’t pass anything of significance alone. (But they can block important legislation if they stick together, like the bond financing bill for statewide construction projects, which stalled on the House floor this week.)

They’ve lost their shared leverage this term as well, especially with Republicans holding the Legislature’s top two leadership spots. Plus the GOP has a chokehold on the lower chamber’s committee process, which has really gummed up the works these past 29 months.

Few, if any, of the party’s chief policy priorities have gained traction. Even the Senate, which has long been home to Republicans with Democratic voting tendencies, is no longer advancing bills for equal pay and a higher minimum wage.

What Democrats do have working in their favor is Gov. John Bel Edwards. It’s always good to have a friend on the Capitol’s fourth floor. But, if history is any indication, the sitting governor also needs the support of his or her own party’s rank-and-file members.

Without the ability to dole out money for pet projects, though, that support has at times been difficult to secure for the governor. Members of the Legislative Black Caucus, for example, have increasingly taken stances independent of the administration’s wishes. The Senate, which has served as a backstop for recent governors, has gradually been following suit.

That Democrats have lost control of the Legislature, after generations of running the show, is not a new conversation topic in Louisiana. But donkey-related happenings and trends from this calendar year reveal how Democrats are dealing with the shift in an effort to lean forward.

Some of the most noticeable changes have occurred in the lower chamber, where Rep. Gene Reynolds of Minden resigned as chairman of the House caucus in May. Reynolds said it was time for new leadership, and he wanted to see more moderate lawmakers working together across party lines.

Since then, Rep. Robert Johnson of Marksville has stepped into the job, bringing with him a new sense of determination for the caucus. That much was evident as last month’s budget hearing on the House floor commenced. The caucus unleashed a series of policy-specific messages from its members and the pre-recorded videos were promoted on social media. The videos were similar to the tactics employed recently, and successfully, by the House Republican Delegation.

There was also a new energy to be seen, via Johnson, who raised his voice from the mic while noting that his grandmother’s rosary was in his pocket. "We are constitutionally obligated to pass a budget,” he told the House. “But we are not constitutionally obligated to pass this one. And shame on us if we do."

Shame indeed, because that cuts-heavy budget was eventually passed to the Senate, which appears to be sitting on the bill. During that same floor hearing, Democrats, if just for a moment, also emerged as a “gang of no.” You remember that phrase, right? That’s what critics have called anti-tax lawmakers — mostly Republicans — during this term’s special sessions.

Last month, during the House budget vote, Democrats dug in to do the same, meaning they voted “no,” no matter what. In fact, Ways and Means Chairman Neil Abramson of New Orleans was the only Democrat to vote in favor of the spending plan in HB 1, while eight Republicans joined the rest of the Dems in the “no” column.

What remains to be seen is whether Democrats can move the needle in the House by teaming up with moderate Republicans. That was the advice offered by Reynolds, who has been working with other legislators (namely GOP Reps. Rob Shadoin of Ruston and Julie Stokes of Metairie) to create a middle-of-the-road coalition. That centrist group, however, had a chance to make a difference on the budget bill, but couldn’t cobble together the votes.

There are also changes worth noting from inside the Senate Democratic Caucus, too, starting with the name of Sen. John Milkovich of Shreveport being removed from the group’s letterhead. Those familiar with the circumstances point back to a letter that the caucus chairman sent to the governor in February that advocated compressing income tax brackets, expanding the state sales tax base and making permanent certain reductions to tax incentives.

Milkovich’s signature was not on the letter, but senators say he still expressed concern that some of the letter’s contents didn’t align with his district’s thinking. So he asked that his name be removed from the caucus’ letterhead, sending a signal that at least one Senate Democrat isn’t going to embrace each and every talking point.

As this term continues to cross its midway mark, it’s clear that Democrats are beginning to find their collective footing. But with legislative membership numbers in danger of dipping again, sitting lawmakers becoming more independent and a governor who lacks the coattails of his predecessors, Democrats still aren’t sure what their next big move will be.

If there’s any consolation, it’s that Republicans, no-party legislators and just about everyone else plying a trade in the Capitol are facing the same uncertainties.

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