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Another special session: Louisiana lawmakers return Monday

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) —

Louisiana lawmakers say the focus for their special session starting Monday centers on the coronavirus pandemic and Hurricane Laura recovery, but the session agenda is so broadly written that dozens, if not hundreds of bills, on a long list of topics could be filed.

Seventy items are included in the agenda, and any legislation on those topics can be debated during the monthlong session. Among the many items are the state budget, emergency powers for the governor and lawmakers, COVID-19 treatment and prevention, high school athletics, business tax breaks, rural development issues, retirement benefits for New Orleans transit workers and contracting at state parks.

Some bills that lawmakers couldn’t get through the regular session and a special session earlier this year will be filed, while legislators also hope to tweak other measures they passed into law.

SESSION DETAILS

The session begins Monday at 6 p.m. and must end by Oct. 27.

Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, both Republicans, gathered a majority of signatures from House and Senate legislators on a petition to call the session on their own and created the list of items that could be considered by talking with their members.

That sidelined Gov. John Bel Edwards from setting the agenda or having input into its contents. The Democratic governor said he’s concerned about the length and timing of the session and the public’s access amid a pandemic. Most Democratic lawmakers didn’t sign the petition to convene the session.

“The most questionable thing about the call is the sheer number of items in it, the vast majority of which have nothing to do with the public health emergency,” Edwards said.

Legislative leaders said they wanted to give members the opportunity to hear issues they feel are important.

GOVERNOR’S POWER

One of the main reasons Republican lawmakers called the special session is to try to put new limits on the governor’s powers to declare and respond to an emergency and to expand the scope of legislative authority in such situations.

Ideas include requiring approval from lawmakers or a council of elected officials for a governor to continue emergency declarations after a certain period of time and possibly revoking Edwards’ existing coronavirus restrictions on business and activities.

“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” during an emergency, Cortez said.

Republicans said Edwards has damaged Louisiana businesses in rules he’s enacted to combat the virus. The governor said he’s trying to balance public health and economic needs with an outbreak that has killed more than 5,200 people in Louisiana.

UNEMPLOYMENT TRUST FUND

Lawmakers are looking for ways to shore up an unemployment trust fund that topped $1 billion in March but will run out of money within days amid the pandemic unemployment spike.

When the dollars disappear, Louisiana will have to borrow money from the federal government to keep benefits flowing — unless they find another financial approach. If they resort to the federal loan, that will trigger a drop in benefits to jobless workers who already receive some of the lowest unemployment assistance in the country and an increase in charges on businesses that pay into the unemployment trust fund.

Proposals to refill the fund include taking federal coronavirus aid dollars that lawmakers earlier this year allocated to business grants, one-time payments to front-line workers and reimbursement of local government agencies’ spending on pandemic response. Agencies overseeing those earmarked programs say they have already obligated much of the money.

Another option being discussed to avoid the federal loan would involve state borrowing through a bond sale to investors for upfront cash.

HURRICANE LAURA

Lawmakers say they want to work on helping southwest Louisiana recover from the devastation of Hurricane Laura’s strike last month. But without any federal block grant aid from Congress, state legislators will be limited in what they can accomplish.

They said they want to make sure that high school students who evacuated aren’t disqualified from the TOPS college tuition program. And they said they need to tweak the K-12 public school financing formula to account for displaced students and to keep dollars flowing to hardest-hit Calcasieu and Cameron parishes.

EVERYTHING ELSE

Beyond those issues, some lawmakers want to take a deep dive into contracting provisions and discuss the state construction budget, while others want to debate criminal justice issues and police funding.

The agenda also allows debate on the distribution of Jefferson Parish hotel taxes, broadband internet incentives, the authorization of the Plaquemine port district to seek a certain trade designation and the sale of surplus property in Jackson Parish.

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