The Louisiana Legislature heads into its final week of the regular session unlikely to complete its main task – passing a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
In an unusual gambit, the Republican legislative leadership on Friday called the Legislature into a special session beginning June 1 at 6:01 p.m., one minute after the regular session concludes, to address the budget and a list of issues sought by business lobbyists. The governor typically calls special sessions, though the Legislature has the authority to call them as well.
The special session would end no later than June 30 and cost taxpayers $50,000 to $60,000 per day, or as much as $1.8 million.
The special session is likely to develop into a power struggle between the GOP-dominated Legislature and Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.
Starting the special session immediately after the regular session gives lawmakers greater leverage since it ensures that the Legislature will be in session if Edwards overrides one of their key bills. Legislators can try to override vetoes only when they are in session.
On Friday, Edwards chose not to question the call for a special session.
The highest-profile clash between the governor and lawmakers involves legislation pushed by the powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry that would reduce payouts by insurance companies to people injured in car accidents. The reduction also would mean less money for the trial attorneys that litigate those cases, a group that is a major campaign contributor to Edwards and other Democrats.
With supporters saying it would reduce car insurance rates by 10% to 25%, the Senate passed the so-called tort reform bill Monday by 29-8, three more votes than they would need to override a likely veto by Edwards.
Senate Bill 418 will pass the House, observers say. The only question is whether it will top the two-thirds threshold there – a minimum of 70 votes is required – that would allow supporters to override Edwards during a special session.
That vote, if it occurs, would be fraught with political drama because the Legislature has overridden a gubernatorial veto only twice since Louisiana became a state in 1812, and the last time was 27 years ago in 1993. Legislators recognize that a governor has tremendous power over spending in their districts, has the biggest megaphone in the state and can reward allies with appointments to dozens of boards and commissions.
The House Civil Law and Procedure Committee will take up SB418 Tuesday at 8 a.m., said state Rep. Greg Miller, R-Norco, the committee chairman.
“That seems to be the priority of the Republican leadership this session,” state Rep. Joe Marino, from Gretna and has no party affiliation, said in an interview. “That’s the one they’re working hardest to get done.”
It’s possible that Edwards and Republican legislators could find a compromise on the tort issue if both sides are willing to give.
The House will take up the annual spending budget and the capital construction budget Tuesday, leaving little time for the Senate to pass its version of the budgets and for the two sides to iron out their inevitable differences.
State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, said the large number of freshmen in the Senate “need sufficient time to look at it and pass it.” White chairs the Finance Committee, which will hear the annual budget bill beginning Wednesday, after the House approves it.
White said officials at the U.S. Treasury Department indicated to him that the federal government would cover the cost of a special session.
By law, the Legislature has to pass the budget bills by July 1 – when the new fiscal year begins – to allow the state to pay teachers, build new roads, operate state prisons, award tax credits to movie companies, pay state employees, provide health care for the poor and finance hundreds of other activities.
Edwards said lawmakers had plenty of time to pass a budget by June 1, but state Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, disagreed.
“There would be more criticism if we put a shoddy budget together because we did it quickly,” Cortez said in an interview. “That would be much worse than going into a special session and getting it right.”
Another point of disagreement between Edwards and Republican lawmakers that will play out during the final week is the push by legislators allied with oil and gas companies to kill lawsuits filed against the companies by seven coastal parishes.
Senate Bill 359 would have retroactively nullified the lawsuits. But SB359’s sponsor, state Sen. Bob Hensgens, R-Gueydan, withdrew his bill Wednesday because it could not pass. Instead, oil and gas supporters brought forth Senate Bill 440.
Opponents said SB440 was a disguised attempt to invalidate the lawsuits through the bill’s complicated language. Supporters countered it would merely ensure that money collected from a settlement with oil and gas companies would go for restoring the coast.
The Senate passed SB440 Wednesday night by a 20-15 margin, far short of the 26 votes needed to override Edwards, who has supported the lawsuits.
The House Natural Resources and Environment Committee will hear the bill Wednesday morning.
Republicans also have a shot at overriding Edwards on two tax cuts that steamed through the House and are awaiting approval by the Senate, if he chooses to veto them.
House Concurrent Resolution 66 by state Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, would temporarily suspend a tax paid by businesses known as the state franchise tax. The one-year suspension would cost $9 million. HCR66 passed the House with 72 votes, or two more than needed for an override. The full Senate is scheduled to take it up Monday.
House Bill 506 by state Rep. Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, would have a bigger impact by steadily reducing taxes on oil and gas production, costing the state an estimated $9 million in 2021 and $43 million by 2025, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office. DeVillier, however, said cutting the severance taxes would generate more tax revenue than it costs by creating an incentive for “mom and pop” oil companies to invest in Louisiana.
The House passed it with 72 votes Friday.
“We have to do something for oil and gas,” Bishop said in an interview. “They are hurting.”
State Sen. Gary Smith Jr., D-Norco, had words of caution for legislators planning to override the governor.
In an interview, Smith remembered what happened in 2014 after then-Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed legislation to create a legal framework for surrogacy births in Louisiana. House Bill 187 had passed the House with 73 votes and the Senate with 22. Smith backed down after trying to organize an override.
“It’s a much higher bar to ask members to override a veto,” Smith said. “It really sticks it in his face and hurts you trying to get things done for your constituents.”
The coronavirus pandemic has overshadowed the regular session, which began on March 9 with the annual speech by the governor to all legislators in the House chamber.
Lawmakers recessed a week later as COVID-19 began to spread rapidly throughout the state, and Edwards locked down all but “essential” parts of the economy.
State legislators reconvened on May 4 even while many Democrats and public health officials warned it wasn’t yet safe to do so. They pointed to Edwards’ stay-at-home order, which would remain in place for another 11 days, as evidence.
But legislative leaders said they needed to get to work on passing the budget – the fallout from the pandemic had caused a projected surplus to become a huge deficit – and adopt measures to help struggling businesses.
“We have work to do and we can’t wait any longer,” House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, said then.
Edwards shelved his legislative agenda, which had called for increasing teacher pay, providing more money for K-12 schools and higher education and finding ways to revitalize rural areas.
Edwards noted that the Legislature’s only required tasks in the regular session were to pass the various state budgets, to reauthorize several state agencies and to confirm his cabinet and chief of staff.
Since May 4, legislators have handled dozens of bills in both the House and the Senate that had nothing to do with the pandemic.
State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, is waiting until the final week to have the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which she chairs, handle confirmation of Edwards’ senior aides.
Meanwhile, the budget bill didn’t begin to advance until Thursday when it was approved by the House Appropriations Committee.
State Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma, the Appropriations chairman, said his committee couldn’t act until the state Revenue Estimating Conference determined how much money the state had available after the economy collapsed and the Edwards administration presented a revised budget proposal several days later on May 15.
But legislative veterans noted privately that the leadership could have had the House and Senate approve a shell bill and then have each chamber debate and pass the revised version with the updated financial numbers by June 1. And the version they pass will have to be updated anyway in another special session later this year, said Jay Dardenne, the state Commissioner of Administration, since the pandemic is constantly changing the financial picture.