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Members are spread out for social distancing during the Committee on House and Governmental Affairs meeting in the House chamber at the State Capitol Wednesday April 15 in Baton Rouge.

Despite heavy pushback from black lawmakers, Senate President Page Cortez said Tuesday the Louisiana Legislature can resume work Monday by taking extraordinary steps to ensure the safety of lawmakers amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"We have got to get back and start doing our business," Cortez said. "We are essential to government operations. We are just as essential as grocery stores and the Home Depots and Lowe's of the world."

But leaders of the Legislative Black Caucus, the Senate Democratic Caucus and the House Democratic Caucus said it would be irresponsible for the Legislature to resume work May 4 and that May 15 makes more sense.

"It could be a devastating blow to the strides made and to the safety of our residents, our staff and members if we returned to business as usual prematurely," the groups said in a letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards, Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales.

Cortez, a Lafayette Republican, made his comments one day after Edwards extended his stay-at-home order to May 15.

He said House GOP leaders agree with the legislative timetable.

However, the issue is especially volatile because black residents have suffered an inordinate number of deaths during the pandemic.

The session, which was supposed to last for about three months, began March 9 but stopped about one week later because of the spread of the virus.

The House and Senate returned on March 31 for a few hours, observing social distancing rules, only to break again indefinitely.

Cortez said there is no need for a formal call to resume work because legislative leaders agreed on March 31 that it was only subject to his call.

The Republican said top lawmakers favor May 4 over mid-May because it will be safer to conduct business in four weeks than two.

"If we delay the session then we would be putting multiple committee meetings in the hallways at the same time, which is diametrically opposed to the suggestions to businesses and to restaurants and so forth," he said.

Edwards, a former House member, said Monday that while it is up to lawmakers to decide on their timetable, the Legislature is like "essential infrastructure."

The re-start date also sparked criticism from individual legislators.

Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, who has recovered after spending five days in the hospital battling COVID-19, noted that the virus claimed the life of state Rep. Reggie Bagala, R-Cut Off.

"I just think it is irresponsible for us to go back while a stay-at-home-order is in place," James said Tuesday. "When we play politics with lives you have to draw the line somewhere."

James said he has no plans to return to the State Capitol before the end of May and only to vote on key issues.

COVID-19 is the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

Cortez, who has also recovered after a bout with COVID-19 last month, said he would never be critical of someone who opted not to return to the State Capitol because of health concerns.

"But we also know that this virus is going to be around another year or longer," he said. "If somebody did not show up for another two years I would understand that. The virus isn't going away in June. It is not going away in August. But we still have to have a budget by June 30."

Cortez said the plan is to limit committees to one meeting at a time and observe social distancing rules beyond what essential businesses are doing.

He said paper documents will be avoided, conference rooms will not be used, members of the public will not be allowed to approach the dais and strict limits imposed on access to the House and Senate floors.

Each time someone testifies before a committee that area will be wiped down.

He said the Louisiana Legislature, unlike some other states, does not have the ability to conduct business virtually.

Cortez said enactment of a $30 billion operating budget will be one of the priorities, as well as appointments, the renewal of government agencies set to close and bills related to the pandemic.

However, if the panel that sets the state revenue outlook – called the Revenue Estimating Committee – does not meet until mid-May, finishing work on the budget in the regular session may be impossible.

A new budget has to be in place by July 1, which means a special session may be required on that and other issues.

Schexnayder could not be reached for comment.

The letter criticizing the May 4 re-opening was signed by Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans and chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus; state Rep. Jimmy Harris, D-New Orleans, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus and Rep. Sam Jenkins Jr., D-Shreveport, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

"Confusion fosters disarray and fear," the letter says.

"Mixed messages from public officials counters our ability to truly recover, economically and physically."

State Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, said while he respects lawmakers who have apprehensions about returning on May 4 "the president (Cortez) has made the decision to call us back into session and I will be there." 

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