Analysis: Lawmakers Strategize Over Leadership, Independence

BATON ROUGE (AP) — With a majority of the Louisiana Legislature re-elected without opposition, back-room strategizing and open jockeying for leadership positions is well underway, months before a new term in office begins.

         The largest outstanding question remains, however: Will lawmakers break with the traditions of the past and elect their own leaders? Or will they wait to see who wins the Nov. 21 runoff for Louisiana governor and who he wants for the top jobs?

         It's a quirk of politics unique to Louisiana, where people elected to a different constitutional branch of government still regularly defer to the governor to decide who will be in charge. It's an anomaly many lawmakers say they want to change.

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         "As I've been out there, the number one issue that has been discussed by colleagues has been their desire for an independent process, both in the selection of leadership and in how we operate going forward. And that's encouraging to hear," said Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, one of several lawmakers vying to be the next House speaker.

         More through tradition than constitutional authority, Louisiana's governor has wielded significant sway over the Legislature. Lawmakers cite a governor's ability to veto items in the budget and control which construction projects secure state financing, to explain allowing the breach of what should be a separation of powers.

         "The governor controls the purse strings, and legislators have projects that their constituents want back home, and if you fight with the governor, you don't get none of them," said Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, a term-limited lawmaker in his final months of office.

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         Lawmakers have allowed governors, including term-limited Gov. Bobby Jindal, to choose their leaders, anoint committee chairmen and remove lawmakers from leadership jobs if they don't fall in line.

         As dissatisfaction with Jindal grew, legislators have talked of wanting to limit a governor's meddling. The Senate took steps to wrest control of their leadership from the governor earlier this year.

         Senators changed the way they will choose their president and president pro tempore (the chamber's second-ranking job) every four years. They agreed to a secret ballot, a rule change sponsored by Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte.

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         A governor's arm-twisting and threats can't carry as much sway, senators said, if that governor can't find out how individual senators voted.

         The first test of how the secret ballot will work — and whether it will generate the changes sought — will come Jan. 11, when lawmakers convene their organizational session with the start of a new term and vote for their top leaders.

         Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, appears favored to keep his position so far, a job he's held with the support of Jindal, for whom Alario was a close ally. Alario also is a former House speaker, when he was allied with former Gov. Edwin Edwards.

         "He has shown the ability to be loyal to governors who have supported him for an election. I think he'll show that same loyalty to the members of the Senate who get him independently elected there," Adley said.

         With House Speaker Chuck Kleckley term-limited, there's no contender trying to keep the position. As many as a dozen lawmakers have expressed interest in the job.

         Behind-the-scenes campaigning has been ongoing for months.

         Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, competing to be House speaker, said he's trying to get enough commitments to show he has a lock on the job without needing a governor's support. He said House members, both Republican and Democrat, have told him they want to assert their independence as a chamber.

         "We are looking forward to working with whoever the next governor is, but we will not be working for the next governor. We will be working for the people who elected us to office and the taxpayers of Louisiana," Henry said.

         Whether independence will emerge in the selection of legislative leadership should become clear within a few months. Whether lawmakers really try to assert their independence as a branch of government may take longer to determine.

         "I've told my colleagues, 'If you want independence, be independent. It's your choice,'" Broadwater said.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte




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