- Associated Press - Monday, January 11, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The Louisiana House spurned Gov. John Bel Edwards’ pick to be its speaker, handing the new governor his first legislative defeat as lawmakers selected their leaders Monday at the start of the four-year term.

The majority Republican chamber voted for Rep. Taylor Barras, a Republican from New Iberia, to lead the House, asserting its independence against the Democratic governor.

Barras was a surprise candidate in the race who emerged in the final hours before the vote. Edwards wanted Democratic Rep. Walt Leger of New Orleans in the role. But GOP leaders and conservative groups pushed back, urging Republican House members to select a speaker from their own party.

“We made history today in Louisiana, because we elected an independent House speaker, and we will have an independent House for the next four years,” said Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, chairman of the House GOP delegation.

The Senate voted to keep Republican John Alario as its president, a position he’s already held for four years. In a new wrinkle, senators used a secret ballot process to cast votes for the first time since the modern constitution was enacted more than four decades ago. Alario was approved without opposition.

But most of the attention was centered on the House, and its rare, contested vote for speaker, a move that tested the limits of Edwards’ power on the day he was taking his oath of office. It was the first time a public roll call vote was held for House speaker in 32 years.

Barras received 56 votes, while Leger got support from 49 members in a runoff election after the field of candidates was whittled from four to two.

Usually the House speaker selection is worked out in back-room negotiations, with one member nominated on the House floor and then approved unanimously. And traditionally, the governor has a heavy say in who will get the job.

House Clerk Alfred “Butch” Speer said the last time a public roll call vote was held for House speaker was in 1984. The House did have a contested vote for its No. 2 job, the House speaker pro tem, in 2010.

After Leger’s loss to Barras, House members unanimously agreed to keep Leger as pro tem. Two Republican candidates nominated for the position withdrew.

Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, chair of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, said Republicans “extended the hand of working together” when they selected Leger for the second-ranking job.

“They could have taken it all. They had 56 votes. And they did not. That shows me they’re willing to work together,” said Jackson, who supported Leger for speaker.

The Senate followed a different approach to choosing its president, one that eschewed the public nomination process and open voting, a rule change approved last year to minimize a governor’s ability to meddle in the leadership choice. The secrecy appeared to matter little this time, since Edwards didn’t object to Alario returning as president.

Whether the dispute over the House speaker’s job will cause friction that spills into next month’s special legislative session isn’t yet clear. Edwards is planning to call a three-week session that will start in mid-February, aimed at stabilizing the state’s budget and rewriting the tax code to fill financial gaps.

Many budget and tax decisions could require two-thirds votes, and Monday’s divided vote for House speaker could point to difficulty in reaching Edwards’ budget goals.

As the new term begins, Republicans have solid majorities in each chamber.

In the Senate, the GOP holds 25 seats, while Democrats have the remaining 14. Sixty-one of the House’s 105 seats are held by Republicans, while 42 lawmakers in the chamber are Democrats and two are unaffiliated with a party.

The Senate has 11 new members out of 39 seats, and 29 new lawmakers were seated in the House. Four lawmakers who served in the House last term moved up to the Senate.

Selected for the second-in-command pro tem job in the Senate was Sen. Gerald Long, R-Natchitoches. Members of each chamber retained their top administrators: Glenn Koepp as Senate secretary and Speer as clerk.

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