Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

A new four-party system



Near the end of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco's single term in office, it was considered a big deal that House Republicans were able to form a caucus that actually made a dent in the process, if only to muck things up temporarily for Democrats and the Queen Bee. It was viewed as the beginning of a shift in legislative power and the end of blanket Democratic control in Baton Rouge.

  By the time Gov. Bobby Jindal took office in 2008, it was even more earth-shattering that Republicans were closing the gap, with 66 legislators to the Democrats' 76. With the start of Jindal's second term in 2012, heads were practically spinning when Republicans took a leading 82 seats at the Capitol, 20 more than the Democrats. The Legislature had finally acquired a two-party system in a state where being a "D" once was considered part of one's legitime.

  Now, with only two annual sessions remaining in Jindal's second term, two additional parties have emerged, making Louisiana the only state in the nation with a four-party system — at least in the House, but give it some time.

  The so-called fiscal hawks, a mostly Republican group of budget conservatives and reformers, have broken ranks with Jindal loyalists. Their moves produced choice and bitter words during the session's final days. Some Democrats, meanwhile, distanced themselves from the Legislative Black Caucus, which aligned itself with the hawks and pushed its own priorities during last-minute budget negotiations.

  While longstanding fiscal issues were either resolved or swept under the rug last week as a result of the budget compromise, the political relationships that suffered during the give-and-take could take years to heal. Despite the feel-good chatter floated by some after adjournment, the Lower Chamber sure looked like a House divided against itself.

  The fact that the fiscal hawks teamed with the Black Caucus, historically a liberal Democratic stronghold, had many GOP lawmakers seeing red. "They stabbed us in the back," said House Natural Resources Chairman Gordon Dove, R-Houma. "They sold out the Republican Party by cutting a deal with Democrats." One GOP senator groused, "Do they really think this marriage with the caucus will last, or that it will end amicably?"

  Given the Louisiana GOP's penchant for eating its own and the ease of spreading the "backstabbing" allegation via email blasts, the hawks' flock was systematically picked apart during the session, leaving a strong core of true believers who wanted to limit the use of one-time money on recurring expenses and reform the appropriations process. In the end, they accomplished some of those goals, but not to the extent originally hoped.

  Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, a lead hawk who had a seat at the final budget-negotiating table, dismissed the criticisms and discounted the notion that the hawks hurt the party. "We're working across party lines and creating coalitions to pass budget reforms," Henry said. "We're reducing the amount of one-time money in the budget. That has always been a must."

  There was a bit of screaming and finger-pointing in a GOP Caucus meeting last Wednesday morning, which is how Republicans kicked off the final 36 hours of the session. Sources say it will be a lasting memory.

  More wiggle room for easing tensions can be found on the Democratic side, where members of all races were happy to see $69 million added to the public school financing formula, half of which will be used for teacher pay raises. It's a major recurring expense that some Republicans wanted to avoid, and the Democrats couldn't have secured it without the hawks.

  Meanwhile, the hawks wouldn't have gotten their budget reforms without the Democrats and the Black Caucus. Some Democrats were put off by the caucus' independent push for more money for Southern and Grambling universities as part of the budget deal, but enough merit was recognized to forestall an internecine war.

  And while he attempted to take credit for the compromise on the eve of adjournment, Jindal remained a party of one. Lawmakers of all stripes say the House and Senate reached an accord before the governor even got to the table.

  Maybe the hardships that created this four-party system (five, with Jindal) are the face of genuine compromise, which we so rarely see in the Louisiana Legislature. Or maybe it's a testament to what happens when political philosophy meets political reality. Either way, the result has overshadowed the importance of being a Republican or a Democrat — and shifted the spotlight to what kind.

— Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.

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