That didn’t take long.
Then again, it makes sense that the first real controversy of the upcoming term of state government involves one of the hottest issues going at the Capitol — the election of the next Senate president.
The selection of the upper chamber’s leader, after the Legislature is seated in early January, is more than just an internal election. That vote (if one is even needed) will decide who replaces outgoing Senate President John Alario, a man so engrained in the mechanics of the Capitol that a hallway is named after him.
No one expects a John Alario 2.0 to take over the position of president, but his predecessor will be charged with overseeing one of the most important transitions in recent legislative history. The Senate has long been a backstop for governors, thanks in no small part to Alario, and uncertainty currently cloaks the trajectory of that trend.
Thing is, that’s not the only thing in the Senate cloaked in something. The nomination process for the next Senate president is slated to take place by secret ballot, a rule that was established by senators back in 2015, just a year prior to Alario being re-elected. The process didn’t grab much attention in 2016, however, because Alario was unopposed.
While some are hopeful that the Senate will be faced with a similar singular choice next month, there are no guarantees. Oddsmakers give Sen. Page Cortez of Lafayette an edge in the contest at this hour, but other strong contenders are also gunning for the position, including Sens. Bret Allain of Franklin, Sharon Hewitt of Covington, Ronnie Johns of Lake Charles and Rick Ward of Maringouin.
As such, the lack of sunshine for such a process has some — rightly so — worried about transparency. The folks over at the Public Affairs Research Council, for example, have taken a strong stance against the existing Senate rules. To be sure, it has caught the attention of more than one senator.
PAR, which was founded in 1950 and has a long history of taking on governors and legislative leaders, issued a press release with the following headline and subhead: “Made to Be Broken: The Senate’s bad policy of secret balloting is illegal, unconstitutional, and should be repealed.”
If nothing else, PAR’s position should provide a modicum of confidence to a handful of senators who have been pondering a day-one motion to repeal the rule regarding the secret balloting procedure. To be fair, though, it’s not as if these good government legislators needed more ammo to fight this particular fight.
PAR’s press release sums up the entire opposition argument in just a few sentences:
“This (Senate) rule flouts Article XII, Section 3 of the Louisiana Constitution, which is the state’s supreme, foundational statement in favor of open and transparent government process, including public documents and the meetings of public bodies. While exceptions are allowed in ‘cases established by law,’ such as with specific exemptions provided in statute and privacy reasons, there is no authority exempting the election process for the Senate president. In fact, Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law clearly says the opposite: ‘Each public body shall be prohibited from utilizing any manner of proxy voting procedure, secret balloting, or any other means to circumvent the intent of this Chapter.’”
Senators have noted several motives for passing its rule, according to PAR, “including the desire to create a Senate more independent of the governor and whose individual members are less vulnerable to gubernatorial retribution if they vote for a president not in favor with the governor.”
Under the current rules, each senator would receive a secret ballot with the names of all 39 senators eligible to be nominated for president, from which they can select only one senator. If an any senator receives 20 or more votes on the secret ballot, they then become the official nominee for president on the floor. But if each senator on the first secret ballot receives less than 20 votes, then the two top vote-getters will advance to a second secret ballot. The same process described above would then take hold if one of the senators receives 20 or more votes.
Hopefully the Senate balloting won’t make it that far, due to senators doing the right thing and repealing the existing rule. Even if Cortez manages to secure the presidency without opposition — he’s said to have enough commitments to win — senators owe it to future generations to ensure this public conversation about transparency isn’t repeated.