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Early merger votes show advocates must step up lobbying

The House version of the bill to merge Southern University New Orleans and the University of New Orleans, HB 537 by Speaker Jim Tucker, is over its first two hurdles and they portend a razor-close vote in the House. But even that may not be enough for it to succeed.

First, the bill marched through the House Education Committee, composed of nine Republicans and seven Democrats, of which three of the latter are black. Here, the bill faced essentially three votes to be passed out with the committee’s recommendation. All but one member voted consistently on all three, where all Republicans voted to advance the bill with the committee’s recommendation, and all Democrats the opposite, except for state Rep. Rickey Hardy who voted at first to pass out the bill without a recommendation but then voted against shelving it and then for passing it out with a recommendation. One Democrat, state Rep. James Armes, was absent.

Then, as by the rules, it hit the House Appropriations Committee, which in terms of voting members is comprised of 15 Republicans and nine Democrats, of which three are black. Here, it survived a motion to defer and then was passed with the committee’s recommendation. All Republicans voted against the first and for the second motion along with two white Democrats, while Democrats voted the opposite although Armes also was absent along with state Rep. Bernard LeBas, and state Rep. Gary Smith voted affirmative on both.

To summarize, on Education, all four white Democrats voted against. On Appropriations, the three that didn’t represent a majority black district voted for advancement on the final vote, of the total of four who did vote. Viewing the eight different individuals, they are fairly representative of white House Democrats, from the moderate conservative state Rep. Jim Fannin to the if-Gov.-Bobby-Jindal-says-the-sun-rises-in-the-east-then-I-say-it-really-rises-in-the-west-and-he-hates-the-poor state Rep. John Bel Edwards.

This puts the bill on the edge because it needs a two-thirds margin to pass as is required for any changes to state universities. Assuming the Republican bloc remains solid and the three white independents who more often than not vote with Republicans join them, and that Hardy will be the only black in the House to break ranks and all non-black Democrats who represent majority black districts join them, that leaves 22 white Democrats up for grabs and the GOP needing half to get to 70. However, the absence of Armes and LeBas, if indicators, are a negative sign for passage as rules dictate it takes two-thirds of the seated membership, not those present, to pass.

Using the same metrics for the Senate, it comes out more pessimistically, with four of seven white Democrats representing majority-majority districts combining with 22 Republicans to get it over the goal line. However, it may be tougher since Sen. Pres. Joel Chaisson would not be expected to vote for the bill given his political ambitions, and state Sens. Butch Gautreaux, Eric LaFleur, and Joe McPherson are much more like Senate versions of Edwards than they are of Fannin, although its possible that state Sen. Elbert Guillory might turn out to be the Senate’s version of Hardy.

Thus, while the way votes broke in the committees indicate Tucker at best has a 50/50 shot of getting it out of the House, a more impressive showing might solidify the four necessary votes in the Senate. Opponents’ main tactic appears to be to make the merger look like it results not in savings but, counterintuitively, additional costs. That kind of result at this point does not look like it’s forthcoming. As such, Tucker and Jindal need to ramp up their lobbying efforts in order to get enacted what to them may be the most important non-fiscal bill of this year’s session.

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