In 2020, as a new Legislature was seated, state Sen. Bodi White was given the gavel of perhaps the most powerful committee in Louisiana’s Capitol: Senate Finance.
Wielding his ability to insert or remove projects from the state budget, White, a Republican from Central who ran unsuccessfully in 2016 for mayor-president of East Baton Rouge Parish, has pushed a host of contentious –and often parochial – legislation.
Last year, he passed a bill to exempt industry members on a key groundwater commission from certain ethics rules, prompting a veto from the governor. He threatened to break up the East Baton Rouge Parish parks department over complaints they weren’t paying enough attention to Central and Zachary. And he has steered millions of dollars in pet projects back home, funding things like the St. George Transition District and Central Athletic Foundation.
Lawmakers have been leery of crossing White.
But his heavy-handed dealings with House members, some of whom described having their projects threatened by White after opposing him, have rankled members of his own party and even fellow members of the Capital Region Legislative Delegation.
The blowback culminated in the final week of session, when the House, upset with White, refused to take up his controversial bill to redraw the boundaries of Central’s school system.
But the underlying tension has been bubbling for much longer.
As White pushed the parks breakaway bill last year, one lawmaker described a tense one-on-one meeting where White bluntly outlined his power over the state budget to seek support.
Multiple members, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, described White’s tactics in negotiations as “bullying.”
This year, as he was pushing his measure to redraw the boundaries of the Central school district, Rep. Beryl Amedée, a Houma Republican, made a motion to kill the bill. Immediately after the meeting, several fellow legislators told Amedée that White “was interested in cutting funding to my projects.” In an interview, she said she met with White afterward and he insisted that wasn’t true.
Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, also a Houma Republican, said he didn’t believe White was being serious when he said he was considering cutting projects in Amedee’s area.
Still, Magee, the No. 2 in the House, said White has “rankled” people in the lower chamber. He pointed to two Senate Finance Committee meetings last week where White’s committee killed a host of House bills. Several of them weren’t given a full hearing.
“I think all of Senate Finance overplayed their power on Tuesday and Wednesday night,” he said. “That’s the most aggressive I’ve seen them be in my seven years here.”
White, who has served in the Legislature since 2004 and is serving his final term as a senator, represents Central, an enclave that was incorporated in 2005 to establish a school district separate from the East Baton Rouge Parish system.
In an interview, White said his committee is the “last stop” to ensuring a balanced budget. He said that when House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, called to request House projects be added to the budget earlier in the session, the Senate largely agreed. But White argued that the bills killed in his committee would have “blown a hole” in the budget.
In response to questions about using his budget oversight as a political cudgel, White asked: “If they got a bad bill or a bad project, what am I to do?”
“We made an agreement that we weren’t going to increase the budget,” White said. “I’m sorry they got their feelings hurt.”
“If I don’t hold the line and I overspend every year…Then we’re in deficit by October, November. We have to balance the budget.”
Senate Finance has long served as a killing field for bills late in the session, as legislative leaders seek to keep the budget under control. In the past, bills have even died without getting any hearing.
At the committee’s hearing Wednesday, two dozen bills were on the agenda, all pushed by House members.
As representatives came to the table to present their legislation, White took command.
After advancing a few bills, he arrived at an education bill he didn’t like. He told the sponsor, Rep. Julie Emerson, that he saw the raft of charter school legislation as an “attack on public schools.” His vice chair, Sen. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, interjected to report the bill favorably.
“Sen. Henry, did you want to make a motion to move favorably or did you want to make a motion to hold it in committee until we can take a look at it tomorrow?” White said wryly. The hearing was the committee’s last of the session.
White let it go, but warned Emerson “there may be some questions between here and the floor.”
He quickly moved to kill the next bill after a brief introduction. The sponsor, Rep. Phillip Devillier, complained he passed the same bill out of the House last year before it ran out of time in White’s committee. White replied: “We’re holding it.”
White also killed a bill by Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, who chairs the House Commerce Committee. The bill would have required insurance companies to cover certain fertility treatments for some cancer patients.
On Friday, White personally walked up and down the aisles of the House to try to whip votes for his controversial Central schools bill. If it wasn’t heard by 6 p.m. on Friday, it was likely dead, because the rules say any bill needs a two-thirds vote just to be considered after that time.
House members’ discontent with White had bubbled up by then. Any time a bill by a member of Senate Finance came up for a vote, the House tabled it.
When White arrived at Davis’s desk, the two had an intense, lengthy argument. White’s bill never came up for a vote.
In a statement, Davis said: “We can have a vigorous debate, but when we engage in disrespect and are condescending, the entire process breaks down.”
Rep. Barbara Freiberg, another Baton Rouge Republican, had a bill on school bullying killed by White’s committee the same day Davis’s bill was rejected. Freiberg agreed with Davis, saying she was “very disappointed in the way matters were handled in Finance.”
“It seemed that everyone didn’t feel free in the committee to say what they wanted to say,” Freiberg said. “Maybe they didn’t want to support any of those bills. Maybe they didn’t have anything to say. It just seemed the conversation was somewhat limited.”
White also took a dislike to House Bill 687 by Rep. Joe Orgeron, R-Larose, that would have sent revenues from wind energy production in the Gulf of Mexico to coastal restoration projects – much as lawmakers did with oil revenues years ago.
The bill wasn’t initially on the agenda, but White put it on the agenda after state officials and coastal advocates pleaded for a hearing. Chip Kline, head of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, described the bill as the most important coastal bill of the session.
White complained that if it passed, there would be “no opportunity for anybody else to share in the profits.” He indicated that his inland district could also use money for flood protection, and he didn’t want to lock up the funds in the constitution.
After White spoke against it, Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, moved to kill it by turning it into a study resolution. The motion passed without objection.
Orgeron, in an interview, thanked White for “at least getting it air time.”
As to how the bill was handled, Orgeron said, “It’s part of the political machine.”
Then he added, “I appreciated him mentioning I had a passion for the coast.”