Louisiana Government in the Modern Era
Louisiana’s government is dominated by Anglo-English traditions, with influences of French and Spanish colonial political cultures surviving today mostly in legal matters and in the language describing its institutions and practices.
Louisiana government today illustrates the classic American tradition of self-government with representative institutions, separated powers, checks and balances, democratic elections, and policies responsive to a diverse population. In the past Louisiana’s government diverged significantly from other US states in both substance and style, reflecting the influence of Spanish and French cultures. However, Anglo-English influences have dominated since Louisiana gained statehood in 1812, and these differences have lessened, surviving today mostly in legal matters and in the language describing institutions and practices (e.g., police jury). Louisiana institutions, practices, and policies are today typical of states in the southern United States.
Louisiana’s governing structure is described in its constitution. The 1974 Louisiana Constitution, the most recent of ten, contains fourteen sections describing the rights of citizens, the organization and structure of state and local government, state finances, the election of officials, and its own amendment, among other things. Although created recently, Louisiana’s Constitution has been amended over 200 times, growing to over twice its original size, which was originally 36,252 words. Two-thirds of these changes have been to Section VII, which covers state finance, indicating continued struggles over who should pay for—and who should benefit from— state expenditures. Calls for a constitutional convention to address Section VII have so far been unsuccessful.
The Louisiana Legislature is the institution responsible for representing Louisiana’s diverse population and passing the laws that govern the state. One hundred five representatives and thirty-nine senators meet for forty-five days to consider fiscal items in odd-numbered years and for sixty days to consider all other business in even-numbered years. These sessions, supplemented by frequent special sessions, result in the passage of between 450 and 1,200 bills every year. About one-half of these bills address local government (Dillon’s Law) at the parish and municipal levels. Others range widely from state finance to education to criminal justice. Over the last forty years the Louisiana Legislature has gained some independence from gubernatorial domination while becoming more representative of Louisiana’s people. A series of court actions in the 1960s and 1970s forced Louisiana to abandon legislative elections that selected more than one legislator for a district. Today legislative elections select a single member who then represents his or her district in the house and senate. Required by congressional legislation and US Supreme Court rulings, Louisiana legislative districts also began to reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the state’s population. Fair districting practices led to the election of a number of African American legislators that, by 2020, were in nearly direct proportion to their percentage of the population (32 percent). Women were elected to the legislature in greater numbers as well, although never matching their percentage of the electorate (51 percent).
Legislative careers are shaped by term limits, adopted in 1995. Current limits are twelve years in each body, meaning that a representative or senator can win three consecutive four-year terms before being required to retire, sit out, or seek other elective office. Term limits have had two major effects: lowering the average age of the legislature from sixty-four to fifty-three and diminishing the legislative experience and expertise of those elected. Partisan divisions have increased as legislators have less time to build trust and work across the aisle.
The governor works closely with the legislature. By virtue of his or her position, the governor interacts with, brings together, works with, or influences every aspect of Louisiana government. As Louisiana’s chief administrator, the governor supervises a staff spread over twelve departments including communications, chief of staff, and special assistants as well as a fifteen-member cabinet. Through the chief of administration, the governor supervises nearly seventy thousand state employees and is responsible for creating the state’s budget that sets spending targets for everything from medical care to coastal protection to child welfare.
As a result of these expansive duties, the governor is the best known and most powerful of the seven officials Louisiana elects statewide. When in office, Republican governors provide leadership for Republicans statewide while the reverse is true when a Democrat is elected. The governor’s partisan activities include fundraising, recruiting candidates to run for state offices, and using his or her bully pulpit to promote favored policies. The governor is so powerful that he or she cannot be ignored with impunity even by members of the other party. Part of this power derives from the governor’s control of the capital outlay budget, which directs state spending for projects such as roads, bridges, and schools.
In recent years changes have brought Louisiana government more in line with other states and has lessened the power of the governor which, during the terms of Huey and Earl Long and Edwin Edwards, was regarded with awe if not respect. These changes included increasing legislative independence and self-direction, which eliminated the power of the governor to name the leaders of the legislature, a reduced ability to direct patronage and control slush funds, and tightened ethics laws and financial oversight. Taken together, these changes reduced the role of the governor to that described in the constitution, with one exception: much of any governor’s power depends on political skill. Political scientists call this an “informal” power. Political skill varies greatly from officeholder to officeholder, making the governor’s position the most dynamic of all governmental positions.
Part of the governor’s power is derived from his or her public support. Louisiana fills nearly every public position through an election. Elections are conducted under the “jungle,” or non-partisan, primary system in which all candidates, regardless of party, run in the same election. If one candidate receives at least 50 percent plus 1 of the vote, he or she is elected. If no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates regardless of party advance to a run-off, hence the “non-partisan” description. This system, which is widely in use in Louisiana and almost nowhere else, was proposed by Edwin Edwards in 1972. Initially devised to make running for office easier for Democrats when they were the majority party, this system has continued to be popular despite declining support for the Democratic Party.
When this entry was published in 2023, nearly every aspect of Louisiana government was dominated by Republicans. Both houses of the legislature had a supermajority (two-thirds), while Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards was the single Democrat elected to one of seven statewide offices. Five of the six members representing Louisiana in the US House of Representatives were Republican as well. Presidential elections have been reliably Republican since 2000. The only counter to Republican domination is in local politics, where Democrats often win the support of large minority populations. Larger cities like New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Alexandria, Monroe, and Shreveport frequently elect Democratic mayors, councils, aldermen, police jury members, and judges. Parishes, which are less likely to be majority Black, typically elect white Republican officials, leading to policy differences between Louisiana’s urban and rural areas.
The characteristics, powers, and structures of local government in Louisiana are delineated by Article VI of the Louisiana Constitution. This builds on the principle that state governments are granted the authority by the US Constitution to determine local governmental powers and responsibilities. The Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This clause, known as the Reserved Powers Clause, gives states nearly total authority to provide for, structure, and regulate local government. In Louisiana the state has taken this power quite literally and regulates or determines nearly every aspect of local government. Local government in Louisiana is divided into parish government and municipal government, which covers cities, towns, and villages. Historically, parish governments were organized as “police juries.” In recent years other systems such as the council-president system, the commission system, and the consolidated system have been implemented by parish governments for various reasons. Parishes are required by the state constitution to have at least six offices: sheriff, coroner, tax assessor, clerk of courts, registrar of voters, and district attorney.
Within Louisiana’s sixty-four parishes, there are 303 municipal or city governments; some 245 of them were established under the Lawrason Act, which spells out the governing structure, powers, and responsibilities of local governments. Larger municipalities are usually created under a home rule charter, which gives local governments more power and flexibility in meeting the needs of their citizens.
Challenges facing local government include the erosion of trust in government generally, the increasing importance of “outside money” in local politics, the decline of locally produced news and information for citizens, and in some cases, declining revenues due to out-migration. Already dependent on state monies, many localities have struggled to provide adequate funding for critical tasks such as childcare, education, health care, roads and bridges, and the rest.
Courts are described in Article V of the Louisiana Constitution, which sets out the structure of the court system, the jurisdiction of state and local courts, and the election and qualification of judges. Other actors in the legal system include district attorneys, sheriffs, coroners, and clerks of courts. Louisiana courts are somewhat different from state courts elsewhere in that they combine substantive and procedural aspects of both civil and common law. This hybridization reflects Louisiana’s history as a French and Spanish colony.
Louisiana has a Supreme Court, five appellate courts, forty-two district courts, and several minor courts. This is roughly similar to the federal court system, which has a Supreme Court, appellate, and district courts. There are seven judges on the Louisiana Supreme Court, fifty-three judges on the five appellate courts, and 236 district court judges. District courts handle the vast majority of cases, nearly five hundred thousand in 2021. A major difference between state and federal courts is that all Louisiana judges are elected whereas all US judges are appointed by the president. Through the creation of majority-minority judicial districts, the Louisiana judiciary is much more diverse today than previously, although minorities and women are still underrepresented in proportion to their percentage in the electorate.
Louisiana faces a number of serious challenges to governance including a sluggish economy, persistent poverty, out-migration, racial strife, and climate change. Yet Louisiana government in the modern era possesses the tools necessary to deal with these issues.