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Louisiana legislative leadership races cloaked in secrecy

Posted at 4:15 PM, Dec 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-12 17:15:13-05

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The secrecy that shrouds competition for Louisiana's legislative leadership jobs is drawing new criticism, as deals are being brokered behind closed doors ahead of the new term.

A secret ballot process to choose the Senate president is under fire from a government watchdog organization, while a private meeting among House Republicans to discuss the House speaker's race is provoking disputes among GOP lawmakers.

Haggling for the House and Senate's top jobs regularly happens in private, as lawmakers negotiate about the positions they want on favored committees, the chairmanships they're seeking and even their preferred parking spots.

As the majority-Republican Legislature exerts newfound independence from a tradition that once gave governors a heavy hand in the decision-making, that's changing the dynamics of the backroom negotiating.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is largely relegated to the sidelines, while Republican U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry inserted themselves into the competition for House speaker.

In the next term, 68 of the 105 House members will be Republicans. Kennedy and Landry are urging them to unite behind one candidate for speaker and keep Democrats out of the debate. The two leading contenders appear to be Republican Reps. Sherman Mack of Albany and Clay Schexnayder of Gonzales.

The formal vote for speaker and president won't happen until Jan. 13, when the new term opens and lawmakers are sworn in. But if House Republicans follow Kennedy and Landry's suggestion, they'd determine who has the most support among themselves and unanimously back that person.

GOP lawmakers disagree about whether they should vote during a private Friday meeting of House Republicans.

Houma Republican Rep. Tanner Magee said based on conversations with legislative staff, he believes a closed-door GOP delegation vote would run afoul of public meetings law by possibly having a majority of House members for the upcoming term present and voting.

"I fully understand the desire and the notion of Republicans having a meeting and choosing for themselves, but I think from the laws that I've seen it's pretty clear that we can't," said Magee, a lawyer who supports Schexnayder.

Winnfield GOP Rep. Jack McFarland, a one-time speaker candidate who now supports Mack, disagrees. He said the vote wouldn't necessarily settle the speaker's race because it doesn't carry the force of law.

"There's nothing wrong with going in there and having a vote," McFarland said. "Yes, it would be nice if everybody would support the one who gets the most votes as the GOP candidate, but there's nothing in the law that would stop anyone from continuing to run for speaker."

Landry also rebuffed suggestions a Republican delegation vote could be problematic or violate the public meetings law. He said many members at the meeting won't even have been sworn into office yet and can't act in an official capacity, and he said any decisions wouldn't be binding.

While the House competition remains unsettled, Republican Sen. Page Cortez of Lafayette appears to have locked up the votes to become Senate president in behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Still, the secret balloting process the Senate is slated to use next month provokes criticism. The Public Affairs Research Council, a government policy research organization, calls it a violation of the state's constitution and laws regarding open government.

The Senate process - used for the first time in 2016 - calls for senators to nominate candidates for president and the second-ranking position of president pro tempore by secret ballot, with candidates getting the majority's support advanced for formal, public votes.

"I just don't think that there's any defense of the Senate rule. They can't point to where the exemption or exception is to the law," said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council. "The other part is it's just bad policy to take such an important vote and to not let your constituents know how you voted."

Senate Secretary Glenn Koepp defended the secret balloting as legal, saying the constitutionally-required vote for president is held publicly after a nominee is selected.

The issue may become moot Jan. 13.

"What I have heard from members that I've spoken with is that everyone is in favor of suspension of the rule," Cortez said.