Louisiana lawmakers skirmish in special session's final days
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As they reached the final days of their special session, Louisiana lawmakers Thursday haggled over elections issues and a controversial police financing measure, skirmishes that kept them bickering rather than wrapping up the session early.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, who didn’t support the special session, said he hopes lawmakers won’t keep going until their Tuesday deadline.
“The truth is that they don’t seem to be getting a whole lot done right now,” the Democratic governor said. He added that continuing a session that costs an estimated $40,000 to $50,000 per day until the final allowed minutes “wouldn’t be a wise investment of their time or the public’s money.”
Lawmakers hoped to end the session Friday, though it remained unclear if they would do so.
Republican lawmakers called the monthlong special session, their second of this year, to try to curb Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions on businesses and activities and give lawmakers more authority over emergency decision-making.
After days of behind-the-scenes haggling, the House and Senate agreed Tuesday to a proposal that would give lawmakers the ability to scrap individual coronavirus rules enacted by the governor. Edwards hasn’t said whether he’ll veto the bill, though he’s resisted any efforts to lessen his authority.
With that emergency powers measure passed, lawmakers found other issues over which to argue Thursday.
Senate Republican leader Sharon Hewitt initially sought to remove the governor’s authority to veto any emergency elections plan submitted by Louisiana’s secretary of state. That concept ran into constitutional concerns in the House.
A rewrite spearheaded by Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Barry Ivey would keep the governor’s ability to jettison the emergency elections plan, but give lawmakers the ability to override a veto with a two-thirds vote by mailed ballot. The Senate needed to decide whether it would support the rewrite. Democrats oppose the bill.
The measure stems from a dispute between Edwards and Republicans over the emergency plan for the Nov. 3 and Dec. 5 elections that had a federal judge determining the procedures to govern the balloting process.
The Senate, meanwhile, rewrote a House-backed proposal from Republican Rep. Lance Harris, who is running for a congressional seat on the November ballot, that would allow lawmakers to strip some state construction funding and sales tax allocations for municipalities that deeply cut their police departments.
Sen. Heather Cloud, a Turkey Creek Republican, said lawmakers want to make sure local government remains committed to public safety.
“If they have justifiable reasons to cut their police department, just come to us,” Cloud said.
Senators expanded the bill to also allow the penalties for steep reductions to fire and parks departments. The rewritten bill narrowly escaped the Senate in a 20-14 vote. Harris refused to accept the changes, so a final deal must be struck by the House and Senate before the bill can reach the governor.
Harris has acknowledged no municipality is proposing to “defund” its police department or make deep cuts. Critics suggest he’s using the proposal to drum up attention for his congressional campaign.
“Our concerns here are about constitutionality. Our concerns here are about overreach,” said Sen. Troy Carter, a New Orleans Democrat. “This is not a tool to be used for someone else’s political advancement.”
The House and Senate unanimously agreed to a proposal that calls for Louisiana’s Department of Health to create rules requiring hospitals and nursing homes to allow pastors, priests and other clergy members to visit patients during the coronavirus pandemic and future public health emergencies, if the patient seeks the visit.
Lawmakers in both chambers also unanimously agreed to steer $20 million in surplus cash to help jumpstart repairs on and rebuilding of state-owned buildings that were damaged by Hurricanes Laura and Delta.
Last week, lawmakers added $20 million-plus in pet projects to this year’s budget, a list crafted privately with no public review process. Edwards said Thursday he was still going through the 113 individual projects and hadn’t made a final decision on which ones he might strike with his line-item veto.
“Right now it’s safe to say not all of those will survive the veto pen ... But I suspect most of them will,” the governor said. “That’s just part of the give and take of the different branches of government.”
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