Louisiana House gaveled in Monday morning to restart the legislative session that was suspended for more than a month because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Representatives met for 90 minutes, mostly putting bills in the proper posture to be heard later and addressing the public meetings legalities required to change times and locations for a newly organized committee schedule.

Lawmakers then broke up for three committee hearings that were held in two rooms each to accommodate for social distancing.

The state Senate convened at 2 p.m. Twenty-nine of the 39 senators came and most wore masks. The upper chamber also needed to get its agenda and committee schedule in legal order.

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said he hopes to move Senate bills and by next Monday start hearing legislation that has passed the House.

Only about a third of the roughly 1,500 bills filed will receive a hearing. Leaders want to focus on legislation that addresses fighting and recovering from COVID-19 as well as the economic problems caused by the closure of businesses and institutions in order to stem the community spread of the often deadly coronavirus. The biggest issue will be to determine how much money is available for state services after weeks of negligible tax collections and how to balance lower revenues with expenses. The state operating budget must be approved by July 1 or state government will no longer be able to spend money.

While the work went on at the House Speaker’s podium, the 78 legislators in attendance – many of whom were not wearing masks as prescribed by leadership – milled around the chamber chatting and joking with one another. Often groups of lawmakers gathered in clusters so large that House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzalez, dispatched a sergeant-at-arms to break them up.

New Orleans Democratic Rep. Mandie Landry counted 18 Democrats in attendance. Democrats, the Legislative Black Caucus, and others had criticized the decision to resume Monday instead of waiting until after the latest “stay at home” directive expires on May 15. Schexnayder and Cortez argued that waiting an additional two weeks would require too many committees to meet at once and thereby not be able to spread out to practice social distancing.

Schexnayder said the time has come to take on the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. “We have work to do and we can’t wait any longer,” he said.

The annual session must end by 6 p.m. June 1, only 28 days away. The session began March 9, the day Louisiana discovered its first confirmed novel coronavirus case. They met for four more days and on March 16 was suspended the session. Legislators came back for an hour March 31 to meet legal deadlines.

The 105-member Louisiana House is down to 104 representatives with the death of Rep. Reggie Bagala, the Cut Off Republican who died from COVID-19.

“All staff and media who I can see from my chair are wearing masks and trying to keep their distance. It’s half the Republican legislators who are not,” Landry tweeted.

Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Paula Davis then tweeted out a photo of her wearing a mask with the message: “Back in Session. Center for Disease Control and Louisiana Department of Health strongly urge everyone to wear masks when in public.”

“You wear a mask out of respect,” said Rep. Rodney Lyons, a Harvey Democrat who became very ill with COVID-like symptoms but was never tested. “I recovered and I survived and I will wear a mask ... You may not feel or be affected, but you want to respect someone else’s space.”

A handful of lobbyists sat in the balcony, rather than their usual location lining the back of the chamber from where they wave and text representatives on the floor.

The Senate also approved resolutions commemorating former Sen. Jim Fannin. R-Jonesboro, and retiring Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson.

Another resolution – commending the Melville Woman’s Club for their efforts in preserving the historic St. Nathaniel Episcopal Church – provided a moment of levity when senators asked where Melville is located. (It’s about 12 miles north of Krotz Springs on the Atchafalaya River.)

Senate President Cortez said he would make a test of identifying in whose Senate district the town of 1,000 is located. (It's Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette, who was one of the 10 senators absent on Monday.)

Senate committees are set to begin Tuesday and will hear criminal justice and civil court legislation. Three committees announced they didn't have any Senate bills to consider and would be standing by for when the House-passed legislation starts arriving in the upper chamber.

Three House committees are meeting 9 a.m. Tuesday: the two money committees, Appropriations and Ways & Means, as well as the panel overseeing Transportation, Highways and Public Works.


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.