BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - While they stressed their legislative independence, Louisiana's new Republican House speaker and Senate president said Tuesday that they want to work with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, choosing to strike a compromising tone rather than a confrontational one.
Republicans made strong gains in the fall elections, increasing their majorities in both chambers, even as Edwards won reelection to a second term. But House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, speaking to Louisiana's leading business lobbying group, didn't suggest those GOP gains should sideline the governor's influence in the legislative process.
"Clay and I have a similar appreciation for teamwork and for working together. He and I constantly talked about working with the governor. And I'm going to tell you that if we work together and we don't work with the governor, then it's going to be fatal, the state won't move forward," Cortez said.
Schexnayder told business leaders assembled at the annual meeting of the powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry that lawmakers "want to be able to work with the governor."
"I think that's the way we move the state forward," he said.
Cortez won his position with the unanimous support of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, but Democrats made the difference for Schexnayder, voting as a bloc along with some of the chamber's Republicans to make him speaker.
The change in tone will be a striking one , for the House in particular. Edwards had a strong alliance with last term's Republican Senate president, John Alario. But he frequently sparred with the GOP's former House speaker, Taylor Barras, and other Republican leaders in the chamber - a four-year span that saw repeated stalemates over budget and tax issues.
While Schexnayder and Cortez talked of bipartisan collaboration, the new Senate president also cautioned that Edwards needs to acknowledge the strong GOP majorities he'll be working with in each chamber. The Senate has a more than two-thirds Republican majority that can override an Edwards veto if GOP lawmakers vote together, while the House is two votes short of that mark.
"I just don't think it makes good sense for us to pass bills that he's not going to sign. Now, the flip side of that is if the Legislature has a mandate that we're passing this bill out, I don't think it makes good sense on his part to veto something that comes out with almost unanimous consent," said Cortez, of Lafayette.
Already Cortez and Schexnayder have been at odds with Edwards over the income projections that the state will use to build next year's budget - though all three have said they expect to be able to eventually reach a deal.
The true test of whether the Democratic governor and Republican legislative leaders can reach consensus may come on the largest debate looming for the upcoming legislative session : a GOP push to rework the state's civil litigation system to, among other things, try to limit damages awarded in car wreck lawsuits.
Business groups, backed by Republican lawmakers, are pushing the "tort reform" proposals, saying Louisiana's legal climate encourages people in car crashes to sue insurance companies, driving up automobile insurance rates. They want to change the rules for accessing civil courts and suing over injuries.
"That's going to be our No. 1 priority, getting some type of tort reform in place," Schexnayder assured the business crowd.
Critics - including personal injury lawyers who were among Edwards' biggest campaign supporters - counter there's no proof such legal system changes would lower rates. They say the changes could keep people who are injured in car crashes from adequate compensation while ignoring other reasons insurance premiums are so high.
Edwards has said he'd be willing to negotiate on some civil litigation changes, though he hasn't offered specifics. Both Cortez and Schexnayder said they've talked with the governor about the topic and believe he'll be willing to consider supporting some legislation on the subject.