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New House Speaker, Senate President Poised to Shape Louisiana Legislative Process

Wallis Watkins

Last week, the 72nd Louisiana Legislature convened for the first time, electing new leaders in a brief organizational session.

After months of backroom negotiations, they settled on Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, for Speaker of the House and Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, as Senate President.

Both positions were hotly contested behind closed doors, but things boiled over in the Speaker's race.

The conservative wing of the Republican delegation chose Sherman Mack as their preferred candidate last month at the urging of Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy.

House Democrats and a contingent of moderate Republicans, rankled by the outside influence, threw their support behind Schexnayder propelling him to a 60-45 victory.

The episode highlights divisions within the 68-member House Republican Delegation and charts a path forward for the Democratic minority.

On this week's Capitol Access, University of Louisiana- Lafayette Political Science Professor Pearson Cross discusses the results of the leadership races and the next steps for the legislature.

Q: Let's start with a brief recap of the leadership races-- particularly the race in the House. Schexnayder is a Republican, but many people are framing his election as a victory for Governor John Bel Edwards and his fellow Democrats. Why is that?

Well, probably because Schexnayder doesn't represent the most conservative faction of the House at this point. Rep. Sherman Mack was was their champion, and he had 45 votes or so. But clearly it was in the interest of the Democrats, and John Bel Edwards, to push for someone besides Sherman Mack, someone they felt like they could work with a little bit better. They got an opportunity when they went with Clay Schexnayder.

Q: The race for Senate President was a bit quieter. Republican Page Cortez of Lafayette had the race locked up, just a couple of weeks after election day. He's taking over for a consistent Edwards ally in John Alario. How is Cortez a better representative of the more conservative State Senate over which he now presides?

This is no longer a "wink, wink, nod, nod" Republican-in-name-only Senate. This is truly a conservative Republican Senate now. They have two thirds of the votes-- the votes necessary to override a gubernatorial veto. And Page Cortez is a good representative of the middle of that caucus. He's not the most conservative, he's not the most liberal Republican, but he's kind of in the middle of that, and I think he's very representative of the caucus as a whole.

Q: We have a month and a half left before the start of the legislative session. A lot of that time is going to be dedicated to speculating on how Schexnayder and Cortez might compare to their predecessors. What are some early signs we should be looking for?

One thing is looking at the Senate committees. Page Cortez has gone ahead and named some Democrats chairs of committees. On the Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations he's got Troy Carter, D-New Orleans. He's got Gary Smith, D-Norco, on Judiciary. He's got Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, on the Education Committee. But on each one of those committees, he has a Republican majority as well. So, you're going to see a very conservative Republican Senate even when it does have committees that are led by Democrats.

Q: A couple of things worth noting: the money committees in the Senate-- Revenue and Fiscal Affairs and Finance-- are both chaired by Republicans. In the past, those had and Democratic chairmen and were stacked with Democrats. That's a pretty big departure. How might that shape the budgeting process moving forward?

Well, I think it's a huge departure and I think we're going to see much more conservative policies coming out of the Senate. You know with Republican chairman Bodi White on Finance and Cameron Henry on that one as well, it's really stacked with Republicans. When you look at it there are only three Democrats on that entire committee with something like eight Republicans. This is typical for the majority party, particularly for a dominating majority party. They like to load up the important committees with definite majorities for their point of view, should they need them.

Copyright 2021 WRKF. To see more, visit WRKF.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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