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1.8.24 – NOLA

Landry issues call for special session to begin on Jan. 15 and overturns John Bel Edwards graduation rule

A Republican supermajority took control of the Louisiana Legislature on Monday with plans to work closely with the new GOP governor, Jeff Landry, to enact more conservative policies on crime, taxes and education.

Rep. Phillip DeVillier, center, is sworn in by Clerk Michelle Fontenot, left, with his wife, Lisa DeVillier at right, on legislative Inauguration Day, Monday, January 8, 2024, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.STAFF PHOTO BY HILARY SCHEINUK

Sen. Cameron Henry, a Republican and business consultant from Metairie, was formally chosen to be Senate president. Rep. Phillip DeVillier, a Eunice Republican who owns a real estate company, is the new House speaker.

House and Senate Republicans agreed weeks ago to back Henry and DeVillier once Landry made clear they had his support. But both men were elected to their new positions Monday with bipartisan support after Democrats gave speeches supporting them.

The House and the Senate met in a one-day organizational session on Monday but will return to the Capitol next week for an eight-day special session called by Landry.

The new governor also issued an executive order on Monday that overturns a decision by then-Gov. John Bel Edwards to give high school seniors the chance to appeal low standardized test scores that would keep them from graduating.

“Ensuring our children have a quality education is a top priority,” Landry said in a statement. “Today’s Executive Order will maintain our education standards.”

During the upcoming special session, lawmakers will redraw the boundaries of Louisiana’s congressional and Supreme Court districts, creating new Black-majority districts for both, to account for the fact that about one-third of the state’s residents are African American.

Landry also wants lawmakers to approve closing the election primaries for both state and federal offices. This would mark a monumental change from the system instituted in the 1970s by then-Gov. Edwin Edwards, a Democrat, that allows all comers, regardless of political party, to compete in the same primary. If no candidate wins more than 50%, the top two finishers advance to the runoff.

Under the closed primary, Republicans would run against Republicans in one primary, while Democrats would compete against each other separately. The winner of each primary would face off in the general election. Louisiana adopted closed primaries for the 2008 and 2010 congressional races but then reverted to open primaries.

Landry’s plan will undoubtedly face opposition since all legislators and statewide elected officials won office under the current system.

“We built the Republican Party on open primaries,” Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser said in an interview, adding that he thinks closed primaries encourage political extremism. “Candidates at least have to campaign to represent all of Louisiana. When you close the primary, you’re going to get the far left and the far right.”

Lawmakers are expected to convene in a second special session in late February to start addressing one of Landry’s campaign priorities: passing tough-on-crime public safety legislation.

Henry, the son of a certified public accountant and a homemaker, has far more legislative experience than DeVillier, having spent 12 years in the House and one four-year term in the Senate, while DeVillier has spent eight years in the House.

During his House tenure, Henry was one of the “fiscal hawks” who challenged then-Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budget gimmicks. He narrowly lost a race to be speaker in 2016 but received a consolation prize of chairing the House budget-writing committee.

Henry, 49, also spent five years working as a legislative aide to then-state Rep. Steve Scalise and remains close with Scalise, who is now the second-ranking House member in Washington.

Rep. Phillip DeVillier is sworn in on legislative Inauguration Day, Monday, January 8, 2024, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.STAFF PHOTO BY HILARY SCHEINUK

Henry, who has an undergraduate degree from LSU and a master’s degree from Tulane’s business school, declines to identify his consulting clients other than to say they don’t perform state work.

DeVillier, the son of a Louisiana State Trooper and a homemaker, is known in the Legislature for his friendly demeanor. He’s an LSU graduate who founded Louisiana Structural Movers and Savannah Claire Inc., which buys residential and commercial property that it rents out.

DeVillier, 47, said he has resigned from that job to devote his time to being speaker. 

“Today, with a new legislature, I have a new hope, and a renewed sense of unity,” DeVillier told the House chamber Monday.

Both men have said they plan to lead their chambers in a bipartisan fashion by naming Democrats to chair legislative committees, though Republicans hold a 28-11 advantage in the Senate and 73-32 in the House.

From left, Rep. Jay Galle takes a selfie with Rep. Nicky Muscarello and Rep. Phillip DeVillier before being gaveled in on legislative Inauguration Day, Monday, January 8, 2024, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.STAFF PHOTO BY HILARY SCHEINUK

In that vein, Henry backed Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, to hold the ceremonial role of Senate president pro tem.

Barrow spoke Monday about setting aside party lines and quoted Jeff Landry’s transition slogan, “One Louisiana.”

“I do think it’s a good start for Louisiana that Regina Barrow is quoting Jeff Landry,” Henry said later.

Sen. Jimmy Harris, D-New Orleans, seconded Henry’s nomination, calling him the best choice to be Senate president, saying, “He cares about each and every one of us.”

State Rep. Dustin Miller, a Democrat from Opelousas, backed DeVillier’s speaker nomination in the House, too. The two men dined together in Opelousas recently with Miller’s son and discussed their shared vision for the state, which Miller described as one of collaboration and unity.

“He has worked, he has evolved, and he has kept his word to work together and to move this state in a positive direction,” Miller told the chamber.

Rep. Emily Chenevert, second from left, takes a selfie with her family, from left, son Maddox Chenevert, 8, daughter Maya Chenevert, 9, and husband Shane Chenevert, on legislative Inauguration Day, Monday, January 8, 2024, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.STAFF PHOTO BY HILARY SCHEINUK

Soon after his election in October, Landry summoned a group of six House members who were then vying for the speakership to his transition offices and charted a path with them toward picking a speaker by largely blocking Democrats out of the process. Republicans hoped that would prevent infighting displayed at the start of previous terms.

process for picking nominees did not exist when previous Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, formed a coalition with Democrats to win the speaker’s gavel in 2020. Conservative Republicans complained afterward about Schexnayder’s decision to give Democrats several committee chairmanships.The new rules called for state Republicans to follow the process the party uses in Washington to select a House speaker. The speaker candidates in Louisiana were nominated by secret ballot in a Republican caucus meeting. The top vote-getter in the closed-door vote would then be elevated to the speaker nomination.

Rep. Michael Johnson, center, is sworn in as House Speaker Pro-Tem by House Clerk Michelle Fonentot, left, with his wife, Sheila, at right, on legislative Inauguration Day, Monday, January 8, 2024, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.STAFF PHOTO BY HILARY SCHEINUK

That process appeared to go smoothly on Monday. After DeVillier was nominated by Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, Miller rose to speak in DeVillier’s support and no other nominations were put forward.

State Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, who is of no relation to the U.S. House Speaker from Shreveport of the same name, was then elected unanimously as House Speaker Pro Tem, the chamber’s second-ranking position.