LABI legislative panel

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, middle, and Senate President Page Cortez, right, discuss the upcoming legislative session at a panel hosted by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry Tuesday. 

The two newly elected leaders of the Louisiana Legislature on Tuesday told the state’s largest business lobby they want to tilt the state’s legal system in favor of businesses through tort reform, but they will aim to get a bill to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk that he will be willing to sign to avoid trying to override his vetoes.

Edwards, meanwhile, said the way to actually lower insurance rates is by preventing insurance companies from charging more to people based on their gender, marital status and whether or not they are a veteran. But he also indicated he's open to negotiating with Republican lawmakers on the issue.  

Speaking at a panel hosted by the influential Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, both Republicans, played up their desire to work with Edwards, a Democrat.

While Republicans gained a supermajority in the state Senate and a near-supermajority in the House last fall, Cortez, of Lafayette, said he wants to avoid taking veto override votes.

“If we really want to legislate appropriately, we want to get a bill that effects change and that the governor will sign,” Cortez said during a panel discussion moderated by LABI President Stephen Waguespack. “Because if we put ourselves in a position with all these bills where we have to override the veto, that’s not a good posture to put yourself in. Again, we have to work together to move forward.”

Cortez added that he doesn’t think it “makes good sense” for Edwards to veto bills that come out of the Legislature with strong support, and said he spoke to the governor about tort reform once around Thanksgiving after he lined up the support to become Senate president.

Schexnayder said he thinks the governor will “take a good hard look at” tort reform legislation if the Legislature puts it on his desk.

Tort reform, a long-sought Republican priority to overhaul the state’s legal system to reduce the number of lawsuits filed against businesses, has taken on greater weight in the Legislature of late. LABI said last year a tort reform bill, which ultimately died in the Senate, was its No. 1 priority, and both Schexnayder and Cortez have vowed to pursue it this year.

While Republicans and business groups say the efforts would drive down the cost of auto insurance, opponents argue it would do little to change the state’s high insurance costs at the expense of individuals, who would have a harder time filing lawsuits if injured in a car wreck.

Speaking after his speech at LABI's lunch event Tuesday, Edwards said he's "reluctant" to say any of the legislative initiatives proposed will actually reduce auto premiums, pointing to the fact that LABI's bill last year did not include a premium reduction. 

He did say he is willing to discuss the issue with lawmakers, and he reiterated his support for doubling the time period people have to file a lawsuit from one year to two, which he said would lead to fewer claims resulting in lawsuits. 

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"But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that our insurers are charging people more for auto liability insurance because they are poor, because they are widows, because they are blue-collar and now, we are finding out, because they might be soldiers subject to a deployment," Edwards said. "We need to do more on the regulatory side to make sure they are not allowed to have premium differentials based on those reasons." 

Edwards won reelection last fall with the backing of some of the state’s biggest plaintiffs' attorneys, who generally oppose tort reform.

Cortez said Tuesday tort reform is not limited to auto insurance; he also suggested he would take on lawsuits filed by coastal parishes against oil and gas companies for their role in eroding wetlands. The oil and gas lobbies in Baton Rouge have sought to reverse or limit those suits since they began popping up in south Louisiana parishes.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com