Not just Jeff Landry. Louisiana Legislature will also take a hard turn to the right.

‘We can’t undo everything John Bel did, but we’re going to try’

By: - October 30, 2023 12:24 pm
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).

In 2015, when Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter was the early favorite to win the governor’s race, then-Rep. Cameron Henry was considered the chosen candidate for Louisiana House speaker.

But Democrat John Bel Edwards beat Vitter in an upset election, and Henry’s hopes for the position were dashed. The House ended up selecting more moderate Taylor Barras, a Democrat-turned-Republican from New Iberia, to be speaker — in part because centrist House Republicans deemed Henry too conservative. 

Eight years later though, Henry is all but assured to ascend to one of the top jobs in the Louisiana Legislature. Now a state senator, the Metairie Republican is presumed to be the chamber’s next president. No other candidate is running for the job, and Henry is closely aligned with incoming governor Jeff Landry.

“I didn’t fit the category of what [Edwards] was looking for in a speaker,” Henry said of 2015. “This governor is going to be different. So [the leadership] is going to be different.” 

Henry’s good fortune not only reflects a change in the governorship, but also mirrors the legislature’s own hard turn to the political right this year. With this month’s primary elections, lawmakers who were once considered too right-wing to be mainstream in the statehouse have gained significantly more power.

For the first time ever,  Louisiana will also have a Republican governor, a Republican supermajority in the Senate, and a likely Republican supermajority in the House. 

“We can’t undo everything John Bel did, but we are going to try,” said Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, one of the most conservative members of the House who recently won a state Senate seat.

How we got here

Democrats have been steadily losing ground in the legislature.

In 2016, when Edwards first took over as governor, there were 41 Democrats in the House and 14 in the Senate. Ahead of the 2023 legislative session, only 32 House Democrats and 12 Senate Democrats remained. 

Next year, Republicans will also pick up one more seat in the upper chamber. Republican Greg Miller will replace Democrat Gary Smith in the River Parishes area. The House party makeup won’t be settled until after the Nov. 18 runoff election.

“The legislature was already getting way too conservative,” said former Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, past chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

The Democratic losses are the result of districts in smaller cities and rural areas traditionally represented by white Democrats flipping to the GOP. Either a Democratic legislator left office and a Republican took their seat, or a sitting Democratic legislator switched to the Republican Party. 

The legislature’s right shift won’t just be the result of Democratic Party losses, however.

A slew of moderate Republicans have also retired or failed to win elections recently. In many cases, they have been replaced by archconservatives.

In the next term alone, three ultraconservative House members will be replacing centrist Republicans in the 39-member Louisiana Senate.

Right-wing Reps. Valarie Hodges, Blake Miguez and Seabaugh are taking over seats from outgoing moderates Rogers Pope, Fred Mills and Louie Bernard, respectively. Conservative Sen. Stewart Cathey, R-Monroe, also managed to win a tough reelection campaign over well-funded, moderate Republican challenger Ned White. 

“I think what you saw is an extreme right electorate turned out,” said Scott Wilfong, a Republican political consultant who worked for some of the more moderate challengers who lost those campaigns. “You never have a governor’s election that has this low of a turnout.”

“The only people fired up to vote were the Jeff Landry crowd,” Seabaugh said. 

Wealthy businessmen also dumped large amounts of money into campaigns for conservative Republican candidates facing more moderate GOP members.

The Louisiana Committee for Conservative Majority (LCCM), headed by shipbuilding mogul Boysie Bollinger, spent more than $735,000 on legislative races from January through September of this year. It focused much of its efforts on supporting the campaigns of Seabaugh, Hodges, Miguez and state Rep. Rick Edmonds — all conservative candidates facing centrists in Republican-verse-Republican Senate races.

“LCCM had one goal this fall: to elect rock-ribbed legislators who stay true to their conservative values when it comes time to vote,” U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, who serves as the political action committee’s honorary chairman, said in a press release sent shortly after the primary election.

What to expect

With more leverage, conservatives in the Legislature will push for state policy changes on prison sentences, K-12 education, gun rights and taxes.

Landry said he is eager to make law changes to address crime issues in a January special session, though lawmakers don’t know what the details of his proposal will be yet.

A few conservatives hope it will include a change that requires district attorneys to charge 17-year-olds as adults in criminal proceedings. Currently, district attorneys have the option of putting them through the juvenile or adult court system. 

Legislators are also likely to push education savings accounts, which would allow a larger swath of public state funding to be used for private school tuition. Edwards has staunchly opposed using public funding for private schools, which is partly why these efforts have been stymied over the past few years.

Edwards, along with more moderate outgoing senators such as Bernard and Mills, also blocked bills to expand gun rights and allow people to carry concealed weapons more freely.  Those measures are likely to come up for a vote again; Seabaugh and Miguez have been enthusiastic supporters of them in the past.

Conservative Republicans have also broached the topic of repealing the state income tax, though they haven’t explained what budget cuts they might make to replace the massive amount of revenue that would be lost.

Louisiana already has several tax changes coming onto the books in 2025 that will constrain its finances. In that year alone, the state will see a 0.45% sales tax reduction and a number sales tax exemptions come back. More money could also be automatically diverted into a fund for transportation projects, meaning it could no longer be used for higher education and health care expenses.

When legislators voted to install a higher sales tax rate in 2016 and 2018, Mills and Pope, while a member of the Louisiana House, were among GOP lawmakers who supported it in order to avoid large cuts to higher education and health care services.

Their replacements in the Senate, Miguez and Hodges, voted against the sales tax hikes as House members.

Still, not everyone thinks the Legislature will necessarily be as conservative as anticipated.

A leading candidate for House speaker, Republican Rep. Phillip DeVillier of Eunice, said it’s difficult to know what lawmakers will do on tax cuts if they are faced with major budget deficits.

“We won’t know until the 0.45 [sales tax] rolls off the books what level of conservative [the House] is,” he said.

Henry also pushed back on the notion the Senate would be more right-wing.

“I wouldn’t say [the Senate] will be more conservative,” he said. “The [incoming senators’]  style is just a lot different than the people they are replacing.” 

Henry, who lives in Metairie, could also be interested in slightly more moderate views. This year his district was redrawn to take in a larger slice of New Orleans than it did previously.

In an interview, he said senators won’t necessarily always fall in lockstep behind Landry next term.

“The governor will be a Republican, and there will be 28 Republican votes in the Senate. But that doesn’t mean the governor will get all 28 Republican votes on all his agenda,” he said.

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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.