Louisiana’s historic veto override session: Winners and losers 

Who won and who lost in Louisiana’s first veto override session?

By: - July 22, 2021 7:43 am
Clay Schexnayder

In this file photo from April 21, Louisiana House Speaker Clay Schexnayder gavels-in the 2021 legislative session. Schexnayder supported a veto override session and said he was confident the Legislature would override the governor’s veto of a bill banning transgender athletes, but the veto override ended with no vetoes overturned. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator).

Republican leaders in the Louisiana Legislature ended the first veto override session in the history of the state Wednesday, three days earlier than the session had to end, when it became obvious the Republican leadership didn’t have enough votes to override any of the governor’s vetoes. They had the option of staying until Saturday at midnight. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, vetoed 28 bills and several other local construction projects approved by the Republican-dominated Louisiana Legislature. Conservatives had pushed for lawmakers to return for a veto override session to overturn some of those decisions. But in the end, they weren’t able to meet the two-thirds vote threshold to do so.

Veto overrides are rare in Louisiana. Lawmakers have only been known to override a Louisiana governor twice — in 1991 and 1993 — and this is the first time legislators had ever called themselves back into a veto override session in the modern history of the state. The two previous veto overrides took place during the regular lawmaking session. 

Here’s a look at who benefitted from the historic veto override session: 

WINNER: Gov. John Bel Edwards

Edwards said he wasn’t “gloating” about crushing the Republican effort to overturn his vetoes, but his Wednesday evening press conference on the fourth floor in the Louisiana Capitol felt like a victory lap. Nearly every Democrat in the Louisiana Legislature showed up to see him address the media.

“No governor wants to have his veto overridden,” Edwards said during his opening remarks.

Blocking all of the veto overrides was no small feat. Sixteen bills he had vetoed initially passed with enough votes to make an override successful. Lawmakers felt enormous pressure to vote for an override, particularly over the transgender athlete ban. Some Democrats and independents had voted for the bill during the regular session, but Edwards convinced enough of them to block the veto override this week.

Republican leaders said Edwards got the votes he needed by threatening to withhold funding from lawmakers’ districts and promising millions of dollars worth of local projects. 

“I suspect I used all those [political tools] at my disposal that previous governors have used and that [Republican lawmakers] were using downstairs themselves,” said Edwards in response to a question about what incentives he offered lawmakers on the fence about the veto overrides. 

“You want to take the politics out of politics?” Edwards said about complaints over pressure on lawmakers.

LOSER: House Speaker Clay Schexnayder 

Schexnayder, a Republican from Gonzales, was the first legislative leader to come out in favor of holding a veto override session to overturn the governor’s decision on the transgender athlete ban.

On Monday, he  told the media he was “confident” that the House had enough votes to override that particular veto. Two days later, the Republican leadership’s attempt at that veto override failed.

Schexnayder is at risk of having the collapse of the veto override session overshadow his successful regular session. The Republican leadership achieved many of its goals — including getting a tax overhaul put on the ballot — during the spring lawmaking session. But few people are talking about that after the veto override session imploded. 

WINNERS: Louisiana’s transgender residents 

Transgender people were at risk of seeing new restrictions imposed on them. The transgender athlete ban would have affected transgender women and girls who wanted to participate in women and girls sports.

Edwards was especially concerned about the legislation’s impact on transgender children, who would have been blocked from joining girls sports teams if the law had gone into effect. Transgender children are already prone to depression and suicide — more so than other young people. 

“It’s directed at the most emotionally fragile children in the state of Louisiana,” Edwards said of the legislation. “We have to be better than that.”

LOSER: Louisiana Republican Party

At a Monday night rally, the Republican Party of Louisiana raised expectations that the Legislature would not just override the governor’s veto of the transgender athlete ban, but also possibly overturn the governor’s decision on bills related to gun rights, vaccine mandates and election procedures.

In the end, lawmakers didn’t have anywhere enough votes to really threaten to override any bill except the transgender athlete ban. None of the other bills the Louisiana Republican Party pushed at the rally even came up for a veto override vote in the House.

At the Republican rally, Attorney General Jeff Landry framed the potential veto overrides as a referendum on the governor.

“It’s really about whether the Democratic governor and Democratic Party are on trial,” Landry told Republican activists Monday ahead of the veto override attempts.

WINNER: Senate President Page Cortez

Whether Senate President Page Cortez was ever enthusiastic about the veto override session is not exactly clear. Unlike Schexnayder, Cortez never publicly called for the override session — so he doesn’t own the veto override failure in quite the same way Schexnayder does.

Cortez voted to return for the override session, but he didn’t seem to be actively lobbying his colleagues for votes to override any bills. He also did not express much of a personal opinion on whether he thought the override session was a good idea. 

Having said that, once the veto session convened, the Senate — under Cortez’s leadership — did vote to override the governor’s veto of the transgender athlete ban. In the end, the Senate did more for the veto override efforts than the House was able to do.

LOSER: Gun rights advocates 

Gun rights groups did a lot of intense lobbying and spent a lot of money in an effort to get the Louisiana Legislature to overturn the governor’s veto of a bill to allow people to carry concealed handguns without having to go through any firearm training.

But they still felt three votes short of the support needed in the Senate for a veto override. Three Republican senators and all the Democrats ended up voting against overturning the governor’s veto. The House didn’t vote on the bill at all. 

WINNER: Sen. Ronnie Johns

Johns, a Lake Charles Republican, wants to be the head of Louisiana’s Gaming Control Board, which oversees the state’s gambling industry. But Johns was in a tough position with the veto override session. 

He needs the governor to appoint him to the position, and he needs his Senate colleagues to confirm his appointment to get the job. That made it hard for Johns to vote to override the governor or to vote against his Senate colleagues’ veto override efforts.

In the end, Johns decided to sit out the veto override session altogether. He had surgery earlier this month and said he was not be able to come to Baton Rouge to vote because he was still recovering from the operation. Since he was absent, he was able to avoid offending anybody.

Edwards called Johns the “leading candidate” for the Gaming Control Board chairman position on Wednesday after the veto override session ended.  

LOSER: Journalists

Schexnayder imposed new restrictions on journalists a couple of hours before the veto override session began. He removed two journalists from the House floor and limited the number of cameras in the House chamber. 

Schexnayder said he was imposing the restrictions because of the uptick in COVID-19 cases, but the House Speaker didn’t place similar restrictions on lobbyists.

He’s also never seemed particularly concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in Capitol. He has never enforced a mask mandate on legislators in the chamber during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last fall, Schexnayder tried to throw out the governor’s order imposing COVID-19 restrictions throughout the state. 

WINNER: Legislative independence 

Even if lawmakers didn’t override any of the governor’s vetoes, calling the unprecedented veto override session was a significant step toward legislative independence.

In many states, veto override sessions are routine. In Louisiana, the Legislature has been mostly unwilling to challenge the governor’s power over the last 50 years. 

Until recently, the governor had a say in selecting the Legislature’s own leaders — including the Senate President, House Speaker and committee chairs. Lawmakers didn’t assert their own independence, which gave the Louisiana governor a lot of power over the last century.

The Legislature started to take back some of its own power a few years ago — by selecting its own legislative leaders. Calling the veto override session is another step toward acting independent of the governor’s wishes.  

LOSER: Republican redistricting plans 

Edwards ability to beat back any veto overrides has implications for the state’s political redistricting process coming up early next year. It makes it less likely that the Republicans in the Legislature will be able to redraw the state’s political districts without involving the Democratic governor. They now know it could be difficult to get enough votes to override a governor’s veto and cut the governor out of the political redistricting process completely.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.

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