ALFORD: The Capitol’s Dirty Little Secret

The governor of Louisiana is not politically omnipotent. (I’m referring to the storied position of governor, not the man or the woman who asked for the empowering votes.) And despite the campfire tales we grew up with down here, the governor of Louisiana is not the most powerful governor in the United States. Not even close.

That’s worth remembering as you sift through the ashes of this most recent leg of session-palooza in Baton Rouge. The qualification will help you understand the try-and-fail culture that’s capturing the Capitol class — and it’s a legal reality that squarely knocks down what many accept as Looziana Political Gospel.

“The powers of the office of governor in Louisiana, especially since the passage of the present state Constitution in 1974, are unremarkable,” wrote LSU’s poli-sci guru Wayne Parent in his must-read Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics. “But the power exerted by holders of the office has been nothing short of spectacular — all the more so given the limited actual powers that the office confers on these men who want to be king.”

In other words, the power displayed by governors like Huey Long, Earl Long and Edwin Edwards, and to a lesser degree John McKeithen, Jimmie Davis and Bobby Jindal, shouldn’t be confused with any sort of index of powers statutorily or constitutionally conveyed.

The power isn’t in the post, it’s in the personality, and we’ve had giants cast shadows over that job. Most lists that compile such things, in fact, keep Louisiana’s governor ranked a little lower than halfway when compared to other U.S. state chief executives.

Few political observers questioned the office’s source of power until 1991, when former Gov. Buddy Roemer became the first governor — at least since the 1921 constitution, Parent writes — to be served a veto override by the Legislature. Like sitting Gov. John Bel Edwards, Roemer had difficulties pushing substantial fiscal reforms through the House and Senate. Veto override threats have emerged from the House for Edwards, most recently last month, but he has thus far fared better than Roemer.

We’ll know soon enough whether voters will cast the same kind of doubt on Edwards’ legislative difficulties as they did Roemer’s when he ran for re-election. The current governor, however, has some cover thanks to the House, which isn’t exactly operating from a traditional leadership posture, either.

The election of Rep. Taylor Barras of New Iberia as House speaker in 2016 remains one of the most significant political stories out of Louisiana for this term and decade. Barras’ rise fractured the governor’s historic grasp on the lower chamber and its committee assignments, and that in turn has contributed to the fleeting power of the governor inside the Capitol.

While Republicans possess a majority in the House, outnumbering the competition has come at a cost. With so many R’s in one chamber, they’ve rather naturally broken down into factions — religious right, libertarian right, moderate, pro-Edwards, anti-Edwards, pro-revenue, anti-revenue and so on. To preside over such a diverse crew would be a challenge for anyone, and these factions are among the reasons why the House seems to speak with more than one voice at times.

In the Senate, meanwhile, a legislative legend reigns. Revered by longtime Capitol players and loudly lambasted by conservatives like radio show host Moon Griffon, Senate President John Alario is still viewed as a fixer. That is, if he gets a chance to do some fixing. Since the budget and most tax issues must originate there, the House has been setting the pace for practically every session this term. Alario hasn’t had many opportunities to ply his old magic.

Plus the Senate is changing, albeit slowly. Some senators are even endeavoring to shake the chamber’s perception of being the sitting governor’s legislative backstop. That has left Alario to walk a fine line, straddling the desires of his colleagues to evolve while adhering to his unique negotiating style that sometimes isolates the brokers involved from rank-and-file senators.

While Alario has long been left alone by governors to chart courses forward, his 46 years worth of results speak for themselves — and, yes, they tend to cater to the wishes of governors, although slightly less so lately.

Before we part ways, let’s recap.

Without the pursestrings of his predecessors and with a House willing to block all of his major fiscal bills, Edwards isn’t being helped by the limited powers afforded his position. Additionally, the House will always have a divided focus and agenda as long its membership remains unchanged. Finally, the Senate is clearly in a position to lead, but the chamber is stuck in a legislative wait-and-see position. Elsewhere inside the rails of the Legislature, even caucus and delegation heads are acting independently of the administration and, in some instances, the legislative leadership.

What we’re left with at the end of the day is the Capitol’s dirty little secret.

No one is in charge.

In a building that’s brimming with overachievers describing themselves as leaders, not a single person can say they’re calling the shots or leading the popular narrative. And still we charge ahead, from one session to another, passing laws with barely a nod to what the future may hold.

To steal and twist a phrase from Wayne Parent’s indispensable book, the Capitol has become a place where “the emperor may have no clothes, but he wears them well.”

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