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Tort reform vote to force Edwards gamble

Louisiana Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards now faces the biggest gamble of his undistinguished career in the state’s top office.

Today, the House of Representatives passed HB 418 by Republican Sen. Kirk Talbot. The bill makes major changes to the state’s tort system as it pertains to vehicle insurance, containing features in the legal codes of many other states that have far lower personal vehicle rates.

Edwards, who before making it to the Governor’s Mansion worked as a trial lawyer, doesn’t want to see this threat to the wealth and livelihoods of his professional colleagues, not only out of comradeship, but because he owes his political life to them. Heavily backed by trial lawyers – who along with other beneficiaries to the current system gave to the special interest group Gumbo PAC $13.5 million from 2018-19 it spent on behalf of Edwards’ narrow reelection – he is considered by the special interests currently fleecing ratepayers as their guarantor that they can continue living the lifestyles to which they have become accustomed through vetoing bills like Talbot’s.

But Edwards faces the real possibility that he can’t provide that bulwark that justified their faith in his reelection. The bill passed the Senate 29-8 while the House sent it to Edwards’ desk by a 72-28, both veto-proof margins.

This would require Edwards to pick off three affirmative votes in each chamber for a veto override to fail, and that looks daunting. In the Senate, all Republicans save state Sen. Rick Ward voted for it, plus Democrats state Sens. Ed Price, Gary Smith, and Greg Tarver. Smith and Tarver are the two least liberal members of the Democrat bloc, with Tarver particularly a maverick.

Of course, Edwards will try a number of blandishments to flip votes, but Smith and Tarver don’t seem likely to acquiesce. He could try to make a deal with Republicans who have shown a willingness to back down on the issue, such as GOP state Sen. Louie Bernard, but it seems a stretch.

He might not have better luck in the House. There, all 66 Republicans present voted for it, with one sure vote in favor, GOP state Rep. Valarie Hodges, absent. Democrats who defected to join them were state Reps. Ken Brass, Chad Brown, Jeremy LaCombe, Francis Thompson, and Malinda White. LaCombe had a close win last year against a Republican, White repelled a spirited challenge from the GOP, and as he approaches a half-century in office Thompson continues to vote more like a Republican, so they would be hard to flip.

However, the real canaries in the coal mine here are both Brown’s vote and that of no party state Rep. Joe Marino. Brown, a former Department of Insurance official and current party caucus leader, on the floor quizzed bill handler GOP state Rep. Ray Garofalo extensively, essentially asking for reasons to vote for the bill in light of past reform efforts; he must have heard one he liked. Marino’s refusal to back Edwards cuts as deeply, for Marino has sided with Edwards often and is a criminal defense attorney.

Despite the possibility of deal cutting, unless a complete wild card out there has yet to surface, Edwards just doesn’t have the numbers to beat back a veto override. Still, on the one hand he can’t win if he doesn’t play, which argues for his casting a veto and hoping for the best.

Yet on the other hand, if the best doesn’t happen, the worst would bring catastrophe to Edwards. The only two vetoes ever overridden in the state’s modern history signaled governorships in big trouble. Republican former Gov. Buddy Roemer vetoed an abortion bill calling it too restrictive, only to have that vetoed and not long after find his legislative leaders replaced in mid-session for the first and only time in modern state history. Democrat former Gov. Edwin Edwards two years later had a veto thrown back at him as part of a slide so severe in popularity that he eschewed running for reelection.

An override of a veto cast by the current Edwards would lay bare the level of impotency to which he had sunk, setting a tone for the next three years that he was just along for the ride as Republican legislative majorities steer the policy-making vehicle. Legislative Democrats would recognize that and begin to strike deals with GOP leaders.

So, it becomes a gamble for Edwards. Veto with what appears as a less than a 50/50 chance of sticking, and make yourself close to a cipher for the next 43 months if you lose. Or, try to retain an aura of policy-making authority by not asking for an official demonstration of your weakness but alienate your biggest and most influential backers over the issue they care the most about. Some days, it’s not good to be governor of Louisiana.

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