Louisiana lawmakers near end of session, ready for another
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers worked through a final stack of bills Sunday as they neared the end of a regular session upended by the coronavirus outbreak, agreeing to a broad expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program and closing a budget gap created by the pandemic.
A rapid succession of final votes sent to Gov. John Bel Edwards measures to loosen Louisiana’s restrictions on guns in church, to grant a public records exemption for school blueprints, to create a license plate commemorating Louisiana State University’s 2019 football national championship and to move the state closer to fantasy sports betting.
One of the most important tasks of any regular session, the crafting of the annual state budget, won’t be concluded Monday evening when the session wraps up. The House and Senate instead will finish that $30 billion-plus spending plan in a 30-day special session that starts one minute after the current session adjourns.
But lawmakers Sunday night put the finishing touches on a plan to rebalance this year’s budget, closing a shortfall caused by the virus’ hit to tax collections and a steep decline in oil prices. They used federal coronavirus aid to plug holes and to increase spending on certain areas, in a plan worked out with Gov. John Bel Edwards.
A unanimous House vote sent the measure to the Democratic governor.
With a 74-16 vote, the House also gave final passage to legislation that will remove most restrictions on which patients can receive medical marijuana from their doctors. The bill by Rep. Larry Bagley, the Republican chairman of the House health care committee, heads next to Edwards, who hasn’t taken a position on the proposal.
Louisiana allows cannabis to treat a long list of diseases and disorders, such as cancer, seizure disorders, epilepsy, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder and Parkinson’s disease. Bagley’s legislation instead authorizes therapeutic cannabis for any condition that a doctor “considers debilitating to an individual patient.”
The bill also loosens medical marijuana restrictions on doctors. Doctors will no longer need to register with and receive authorization from the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners to recommend cannabis for patients.
The Senate unanimously sent the governor a bill by Democratic Sen. Troy Carter that exempts from public release any blueprints or floor plans that show the interior of a public school building, a measure described as a response to school shootings around the nation.
With another unanimous Senate vote, Edwards received a measure by Democratic Sen. Regina Barrow that prohibits most health insurers from denying coverage for a coronavirus test ordered by a doctor. The companies also couldn’t require patients to pay a portion of any test costs through 2021.
A 76-20 House vote gave final passage to a bill by Republican Rep. Tanner Magee creating a regulatory framework for fantasy sports betting. Voters in 47 parishes agreed in 2018 to legalize the competitions for online cash prizes, but the betting can’t start until regulations and tax rates are set. The taxes will be considered in the upcoming special session.
Lawmakers in the House also sent Edwards legislation to make it easier to carry a concealed handgun in church.
The measure by Republican Rep. Bryan Fontenot would repeal a law allowing a concealed handgun permit holder to bring a gun in church only if church authorities inform their congregations. It also would do away with a provision allowing church authorities to require anyone wishing to carry into the facilities to take an extra eight hours of tactical training each year.
But church authorities still will have to agree before allowing concealed handguns in a place of worship, under a Senate change that House lawmakers adopted in a final 75-20 vote.
The regular session began on March 9, but was quickly derailed a week later by the virus outbreak as the New Orleans area became one of the nation’s COVID-19 disease hot spots. Lawmakers temporarily adjourned and didn’t return until May 4, giving them four weeks to work through hundreds of bills.