By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

New faces and old partisanship will intersect on March 9 to open what could be a compelling session of the Louisiana Legislature. 

Because of term limits or decisions to not seek office again, the Legislature will welcome 45 new members in the House and 20 new members in the Senate, although some are familiar faces merely swapping addresses, with two former senators going to the House and 10 former House members to the Senate.

Adding to the intrigue and how that will affect key pieces of legislation is that Senate Republicans hold a two-thirds supermajority, sitting in 27 of 39 seats.

During the fall election, the House GOP fell just two votes short of a supermajority, and hold 68 of 105 seats. However, even before the gavel bangs to convene the new session, House GOP members had already splintered during the tumultuous election for Speaker of the House. 

“It’s going to be an interesting year,” said Rob Tasman, executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops. “A lot of that is the fact there are a large number of newly elected officials at the Capitol. What you normally see when that occurs are ambitious ideas and proposals and a sense of excitement among the newly elected when they now occupy a position where they affect some change.”

Tasman admitted some of the legislative novices will encounter a learning curve, including gaining a full understanding of the process of how to walk a bill from beginning to end.

He said the new wave of legislators can be viewed in two ways. The positive is that they recognize their time is limited so they want to quickly see what legislation they can get passed that will benefit people.

“The other way to look at is a bit of caution,” Tasman said. “You have to keep a keen eye on what bills were filed and what type of impact, even unintentional, consequences that might result.”

Tasman said his task will be more demanding because he has to reach out to so many new individuals and help them understand, first and foremost, who the LCCB is and what kind of issues it takes on and potential positions they might take as a result.

“It’s always important for the legislators to understand we are operating from a place of principles and not politics,” he said, adding that the LCCB is one of the most fascinating associations in the Capitol.

He said new legislators might find it confusing how the LCCB might have a majority Democrat support during the morning  and majority Republicans support in the afternoon on separate issues.

“One of the challenges is education and why we have the position we have and where that position comes from,” he said.

The one unknown is how will changes in both chambers affect legislation. Perhaps an early harbinger was the Speaker of the House spat, when Clay Schexnayder was ultimately elected, but not before more than a few egos were bruised.

“I would argue there are more politics internally than I’ve seen in 10 years of occupying this position,” Tasman said. “What I worry about is if meaningful conversations can still be held. In order to have those meaningful conversations, we need to approach it from a standpoint that people are willing to listen, people are willing to dialogue and not just about where they might fall on the party line.”

He said Gov. John Bel Edwards might also encounter challenges in advancing his own agenda items, adding that the governor working with the legislature will be tantamount. Tasman said the governor will certainly not be able to pass issues with just the support of his party.

“If you want to look at it from a place of optimism, people will have to work together to get good reforms passed,” Tasman said. “It holds everybody accountable in a different way.

“If we do have to work together, I think that is when the best legislation comes, coming together and hashing it out.”

There are several issues Tasman will be birddogging, including potential attempts to roll back advancements of the state’s acclaimed criminal justice reform, which LCCB played a major role in pushing through the Legislature during the past few years.

Perhaps one item of concern for Catholic schools is Edwards, in his “aspirational budget,” proposed a $475,000 cut in required services, which could mean thousands of dollars of reduced of funding for schools. Required services funding topped out at $14 million annually, but last year fell to $11.3 million and this year would drop to $10.5 million under Edwards’ proposal.

“The reality is that will completely upset the way schools planned with their upcoming budgets (for the 2020-21 school year),” Tasman said. “It depends on the school but they would have to either make up the funding or make cuts.”

On another critical issue, a bill has already been filed that would outlaw capital punishment, and Tasman said he will see what kind of traction it generates. He did say LCCB will likely lend its voice to the effort.

Of course, with $103 million included in Edward’s budget that Republican leaders have refused to recognize, cuts might still pepper the spring session. 

For now, however, Tasman is focused on learning and introducing himself to a bevy of new faces.