Louisiana COVID-19 special session opens with power debate
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Only three months removed from their last gathering, Louisiana legislators returned Monday for a special session focused on the coronavirus outbreak, with deepening rifts between Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican lawmakers over the appropriate response to the pandemic.
The monthlong special session was called by Republican lawmakers without consultation from the Democratic governor on the 70-item agenda.
The list includes everything from Hurricane Laura response and changes to coronavirus regulations to budget discussions and issues specific to individual parishes. Though the list is broad, Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder said their focus will be on recovery from the coronavirus and Laura.
“Everything we do will be about getting our people back on their feet,” said Schexnayder, a Republican from Gonzales.
Others, including Edwards, criticize the agenda as too expansive.
“It’s like a regular session. I think the call is way too ambitious,” said Baton Rouge Rep. Ted James, one of the few Democrats to sign the petition convening the session. “I think that there’s no way that we can adequately address all of those issues in 30 days.”
The House and Senate convened Monday evening with several members not following the statewide mask mandate. There was little action on opening day besides the procedural introduction and committee assignment of bills.
Top of the agenda is a push by GOP legislators to try to scale back the governor’s emergency powers and require more review from the Legislature for emergencies that last beyond a few weeks — as many lawmakers complain they’ve been sidelined in coronavirus decision-making.
Cortez and Schexnayder are each introducing bills on the topic, and they’ll likely become the main measures for debate.
“I think there’s a large segment of the Legislature that wants to at least have a seat at the table to discuss how the state operates,” said Cortez, a Lafayette Republican.
Democrats are rallying against efforts to curb the governor’s authority, and if they hold together as a bloc in the House, they could keep Republicans from being able to override an Edwards veto of such legislation.
“The governor is doing a good job of managing the pandemic,” said Shreveport Rep. Sam Jenkins, leader of House Democrats.
Nearly 5,300 people in Louisiana have died from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus since mid-March, according to the health department.
Some Republican lawmakers say Edwards’ continued regulations have been an overreaction, damaging the state’s economy.
Rep. Mark Wright, a Covington Republican, is one of many House members to propose legislation for curbing executive power over emergencies.
“The impact on lives, livelihoods and our economy has been devastating in ways that have not yet been felt. It’s imperative that we open again soon, and that no single person has the unrestricted authority to shut down commerce and travel,” Wright said in a statement.
The governor says his rules — which were loosened earlier this month — are less restrictive than many other states with lower rates of virus infections. The White House coronavirus task force and Trump administration officials have repeatedly applauded Edwards’ handling of the outbreak.
Cortez said one of his main priorities for the session involves finding a way to shore up the state’s nearly bankrupt unemployment trust fund. Jobless benefits will keep flowing to workers through loans from the federal government, but in 2021 those benefits will shrink and businesses will have to pay higher taxes if lawmakers can’t find a state financing stream to refill the trust fund.
Sen. Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican, wants to start looking at ways to cut spending to account for lower tax collections because of the coronavirus outbreak. While federal dollars have filled budget gaps, those dollars will disappear next year. Henry wants to prepare for that loss — and he’s suggesting lawmakers curtail future automatic salary hikes for state workers.
“To be borrowing money for unemployment while giving out pay raises is not the best use of taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Henry and other Republicans lawmakers also want to take a deep dive into government contracts awarded during the pandemic and after Laura struck in August, as public bid laws have been suspended because of the governor’s emergency orders.
Special sessions traditionally have cost Louisiana about $50,000 a day, meaning this latest gathering could cost as much as $1.5 million if it lasts until it must end Oct. 27.