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Analysis: Veto session would be another break from tradition

July 4, 2021 GMT
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House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, standing at the right, looks over the House chamber after speaking with staff at his desk on the last day of the legislative session, Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)
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House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, standing at the right, looks over the House chamber after speaking with staff at his desk on the last day of the legislative session, Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana appears headed to a veto override session, marking another tradition-busting moment of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ tenure as lawmakers break from historic norms and flex their constitutional independence in a state where a governor’s power once seemed almost absolute.

The breaking of decades-long patterns started quickly after the Democratic governor’s first victory in the 2015 election, which also saw the hardening of Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

Lawmakers across Edwards’ two terms in office have bucked him on leadership choices in which a governor traditionally held heavy sway. They’ve publicly fought with Edwards over income forecasts that once were worked out between governors and legislative leaders behind closed doors. And they’ve called their own special sessions without coordinating with Edwards, a largely unthinkable idea under prior governors.

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If the House and Senate hold the veto session as expected in mid-July, that could be the most significant shattering of long-established norms to date, becoming the first time Louisiana’s held such a gathering since the modern state constitution was enacted in 1974.

“You’ve already seen a break in tradition. I feel like the governor did not take a very active role (in the regular session) this year. He more or less sat back and watched, which is very unusual for Louisiana,” said Sen. Eddie Lambert, a Gonzales Republican in the Legislature since 2004. “You’re on a different playing field now. I think you have much more independence with the Legislature than you had before.”

Reasons for the veto session seem varied.

Some Republicans are playing partisan politics. Other Republicans have philosophical disagreements with Edwards and say he didn’t seem willing to work with them. Still other lawmakers of both parties say they don’t think the governor understands the widespread support for the jettisoned bill that appears to be the driving force for a veto session: banning transgender athletes from competing on school sports teams of their identified gender.

Edwards’ rejection of the transgender sports ban is what prompted Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder to say he supports a veto session, and it’s the measure that GOP Senate President Page Cortez said has spurred enough backing for the session among senators.

Bill supporters say they want to protect female athletes from unfair competition. Opponents call the measure discriminatory, a risk to Louisiana’s ability to draw big-ticket events to the state and unnecessary since no one can point to a Louisiana-specific example of the issue.

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The Louisiana Conservative Caucus, a group of 39 Republican House members, wants a veto session to also try to overturn Edwards’ rejection of a measure allowing people 21 and older to carry a concealed handgun without a permit.

The Legislature needs “to rally together to make an example for our future generations that this is when Louisiana turned a corner. This is when governors quit bullying legislators and started respecting the legislative process,” Winnfield Rep. Jack McFarland, caucus chairman, said in a statement.

Edwards vetoed 28 bills from the legislative session that could be considered by lawmakers for overturning.

Under Louisiana’s constitution, a veto session is automatically scheduled when a governor jettisons legislation. However, a majority vote of either the House or Senate can scrap the gathering. Ballots determining whether a veto session will be held are due July 15.

Still, getting enough lawmakers to agree to hold the veto session is easier than getting the two-thirds votes needed to overturn a veto. Edwards can try to peel off votes with his control over state-financed construction projects, appointments to boards and commissions and agency dollars spent on projects in legislative districts.

The Louisiana Legislature has overturned only two vetoes in modern history, neither in a veto session.

Edwards “feels very strongly that we are at our best when we work together and that as leaders we should be focusing on issues that unite our people and make all of us stronger. He doesn’t feel that a veto session is necessary,” said spokesperson Christina Stephens.

Houma Rep. Tanner Magee, the House’s second-ranking Republican, believes Edwards could have negotiated sooner on legislation and possibly avoided the veto session. But Magee said it’s too late, calling it the “natural evolution” of legislative independence.

The question is whether the House and Senate will continue their independent streak if a Republican governor is elected in 2023 or if they’ll fall back to the old traditions.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.