Louisiana lawmakers veto override efforts coming down to one bill — a transgender athlete ban

Bills to change election procedures, expand gun rights failed to pass Tuesday.

By: - July 21, 2021 6:00 am
Louisiana State Capitol

The Louisiana Legislature is likely to be far more conservative in 2024 than it has been in the past.(Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator).

The Louisiana Legislature’s historic veto override session appears to be coming down mostly to one piece of legislation — a transgender women and girls athlete ban.

Republican lawmakers entered the state’s first ever veto override session angling to overturn Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision on more than one measure. Edwards vetoed 28 bills and removed several Republican lawmakers’ pet projects from three additional pieces of budget legislation in June.

At a GOP rally Monday night, Republican legislators told supporters they wanted to force veto override votes not only on the transgender athlete ban (Senate Bill 156), but also on bills that would affect election procedures, vaccines mandates and gun rights. 

But by Tuesday afternoon, they appeared to only be in reach of a single veto override. Lawmakers who wanted to override the governor on other issues — like the expansion of gun rights — don’t appear to have enough support to do so.

The Louisiana Senate voted to override just one of the five gubernatorial vetoes it took up Tuesday. The chamber voted 26-12 to send the transgender athlete ban again to the House. That’s the exact number of votes the bill needed to move forward in the veto override process. Four other bills — which dealt with everything from a local water commission board to elections — failed. 

Partisan politics appear to be in play. Democrats have been reluctant so far to join Republicans in voting to overturn vetoes of the Democratic governor, even if they voted for those same bills during the regular session. The transgender bill veto override got out of the Senate with only Republican support. All the Senate Democrats voted against it. 

Besides the transgender athlete ban, it’s looking unlikely any other bill will be able get the support it needs to overcome the governor’s veto. Veto overrides require a two-thirds vote from each of the chambers — and most bills are at least one or two votes short in the Senate. 

On Tuesday, Sen. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, told his colleagues he would not vote to override any bills other than the transgender athlete ban. Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, is also absent from the veto override session after having surgery earlier this month. With Democrats also refusing to vote for overrides, there don’t appear to be enough votes in the Senate to get to a two-thirds vote on any other bill.

But just because the Democrats voted en masse against the transgender athlete ban in the Senate doesn’t mean they will do the same in the House. In the House, Republicans don’t have enough votes to meet the two-thirds threshold to overturn a veto. They need Democrats or independents to cross over and vote with them.

Nearly all of the House Republicans have said they will support the transgender athlete ban. Rep. Joe Stagni, R-Kenner, is the only GOP member who has said he won’t vote for the bill. That means supporters need at least three other representatives — Democrats and independents — to join the majority of Republicans to make the override successful.

One independent, Rep. Roy Daryl Adams of St. Francisville, and one Democrat,  Rep. Francis Thompson of Delhi, have told the governor’s office and Republican leaders they will vote for the transgender athlete ban. But that still leaves supporters one vote short. The two other independents in the House will be absent for the override vote this week, so at least one more Democrat will have to cross over to make the override successful.

Edwards and other Democrats appear to be most concerned about Rep. C. Travis Johson, D-Vidalia, siding with Republicans to bring the bill to the 70-vote threshold needed to make the override successful.

Johnson supported the bill and co-sponsored it when it first came through the Louisiana Legislature this spring, but he’s also a member of the Louisiana Democratic Party’s executive committee, which opposes the legislation. Party leaders could punish Johnson if he casts the deciding vote that leads to a veto override of the Democratic governor. On Tuesday afternoon, Senate Democrats huddled with Johnson on the Senate floor shortly after the Senate vote to override the trasngender athlete ban veto took place.

Media will have a harder time watching any House votes on veto overrides — including the transgender athlete ban — Tuesday afternoon. House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, has restricted journalists’ access to the House chamber for the veto override session.

Schexnayder said the media restrictions are necessary to deal with the uptick in COVID-19 cases, but the same restrictions haven’t been put on lobbyists who also sit in the House chamber. 

The Speaker didn’t enforce the statewide mask mandate in the House chamber for months after Gov. John Bel Edwards’ put that restriction in place in all government buildings. Schexnayder also voted to throw out all COVID-19 restrictions last October, when conservative legislators were angry with the governor for putting masking and distancing requirements in place.  

That the transgender athlete legislation is still alive took political insiders and the business community by surprise. Lawmakers have only overridden the governor twice in the modern history of the state. This week’s veto override session is also the first one in the history of Louisiana. Previous veto overrides took place during the regular lawmaking session.

Therefore, many people did not expect any veto overrides to occur once the Legislature adjourned in June. 

Edwards had said very early on in the session that he planned to veto the transgender athlete ban. He worried about the impact a prohibition on transgender women and girls participating in women’s and girl’s sports might have on a vulnerable population. 

He was also concerned about the economic impact of the bill. The NCAA, professional sports teams, conferences, conventions and rank-and-file tourists have been willing to boycott states over laws that they believe discriminate against transgender people. 

Edwards’ early statement about vetoing the transgender athlete ban might explain why business leaders who oppose the legislation were silent about it until the last couple of days. 

The business community in New Orleans and Baton Rouge started publicly expressing concern about the economic impact of the bill on Sunday night. But when the bill was working its way through the Legislature this spring, they didn’t raise any formal opposition or testify about their worries over its financial impact. This may be because they thought Edwards would be able to kill the legislation with a veto. 

And as late as Tuesday morning, the governor’s office thought it might have to votes to kill the transgender athlete ban in the Senate. The governor’s staff expected that Connick might cross over and vote with Democrats on the issue. He didn’t.

House members are expected to take up the bill Wednesday afternoon, but have until Saturday at midnight to vote on the legislation. Emotions are running extremely high. On Tuesday, Capitol security forcibly removed protesters from the House chamber balcony after they unfurled a banner supporting transgender rights.

Even if the House voted to override the governor’s veto on the transgender ban, the battle over the legislation probably won’t be over. It’s likely the new law would draw a lawsuit from transgender advocates and civil rights attorneys. Several other states that have passed similar legislation are already being sued over those policies.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.