During the Louisiana legislative session that ended in June, a group of mostly Republican House members known as the Fiscal Hawks established an unlikely alliance with House Democrats, forcing major changes in the state budget over Gov. Bobby Jindal’s objections.
Emboldened by their success, the Fiscal Hawks are now strengthening their ties with House Democratic leaders, even if they are loath to admit it because of heat from Jindal supporters within the Republican Party.
One of the Fiscal Hawks’ leaders, state Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, organized a private gathering of conservative legislators, mostly Fiscal Hawks, at the InterContinental New Orleans on Friday and Saturday. The lawmakers heard a series of presentations on the budget, education and the legislative process and socialized over Lucky Dogs one night and oysters and gumbo the next.
The gathering included key Democratic leaders:
State Rep. John Bel Edwards of Amite, who leads the House Democratic caucus
State Rep. Katrina Jackson of Monroe, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus
State Rep. Walt Leger of New Orleans, who is the speaker pro tempore
In another sign of the newfound ties, another Fiscal Hawk leader, state Rep. Lance Harris, who also heads the House Republican caucus, is hosting the black caucus at his Alexandria home Thursday night. The black caucus is holding its annual meeting this year at the Parc England Hotel, which is in Harris’ legislative district.
A third Fiscal Hawk leader, state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, will attend the black caucus meeting. Henry is taking the lead on formulating the Fiscal Hawks’ agenda for next year’s legislative session.
“The alliance is very much alive and well,” Jackson said in an interview.
It developed during the legislative session because the Fiscal Hawks were frustrated that Jindal wouldn’t support the changes they sought in writing the budget. Democrats, for their part, wanted to reverse years of cuts to public education and public health care under Jindal. Combined, they had 60 to 70 votes in the 105-member House.
Jindal and his allies in the state Senate tried to pull them apart late in the session but failed. The Fiscal Hawks ended up winning changes aimed at ending a history of midyear budget cuts under Jindal and making the budget-writing process more transparent. In return, the Democrats won more spending for teachers, schools and universities.
“We all know we can’t accomplish anything without each other,” said state Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Erath. “Last session proved that.”
Under fire from other Republicans, Harris and Schroder in interviews de-emphasized the relationship between the Fiscal Hawks and Democrats.
“I wouldn’t really call it an alliance,” said Harris. “It’s an open communication.”
Harris also downplayed the significance of Thursday night’s dinner reception. “A lot of local officials will come by,” Harris said. “It’s a good chance to showcase my district.”
Schroder said that last week’s gathering in New Orleans marked the seventh year he has brought together conservatives. He also noted that Edwards attended last year’s meeting.
“The agenda was not to align the Fiscal Hawks with the Democrats,” Schroder said. “That was the furthest thing from my mind.”
State Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, another Fiscal Hawk leader, also minimized the alliance. “I don’t know what the Democrats got” during the legislative session, he said.
In an interview, Edwards was quick to note what they got: “By working with the Fiscal Hawks, we were able to demand the first increase in spending in five years for public education: $69 million.” At least half of the money will raise salaries for certified classroom teachers while school districts are free to spend the rest on other needs.
In the deal, Grambling and Southern University also got about $10 million total, which was especially important to the black caucus.
“The Fiscal Hawks now know we’re trustworthy,” Edwards said. “I’ve not heard one word against us.”
Fiscal Hawks, though, have heard plenty of words against them. The Republican Party of Louisiana, staffed by Jindal loyalists, has attacked them as if they were tax-and-spend Democrats. So have conservative bloggers.
State Rep. Gordie Dove, R-Houma, a strong Jindal ally, chastised the Fiscal Hawks in private meetings in the final days of the legislative session. He said Republicans ought to work with Republicans now that they control the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
Dove kept up his criticism when asked why he didn’t attend Schroder’s meeting.
“John Schroder doesn’t speak for the Republican delegation,” Dove said. “I thought it was a Fiscal Hawks meeting. I will not support them. I believe they have become an entity unto themselves. They had their own meetings during the legislative session. Their direction during the last session was cutting deals with John Bel Edwards and Katrina Jackson.”
Dove noted that the Fiscal Hawks – as a counter to Jindal’s failed plan to eliminate income taxes and raise sales taxes – unsuccessfully sought to shave major business tax exemptions by 15 percent. He called that “anti-business legislation.”
In another sign of how the Fiscal Hawks have arrived as a political force, three senior gubernatorial aides attended the gathering:
Paul Rainwater, who is Jindal’s chief of staff
Tim Barfield, who is secretary of the Department of Revenue
John White, who is Jindal’s education superintendent.
Three former state officials discussed ways to manage the budget better:
Johnny Rombach, who once headed the Legislative Fiscal Office
Bob Keaton, who was the Senate budget director
Steve Winham, who was the state budget director
Schroder also got three Republican senators and one Democrat to attend:
Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette
Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco
Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe
Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie
“We talked about issues of common interest between the Senate and House,” Appel said. But there’s not much common ground. “The Senate, we’re different. We’ll do what we want to do.”