After negotiations with Louisiana’s Democratic governor faltered – and with only about 15 minutes left in the regular legislative session – Republican lawmakers went ahead Monday night and passed a bill the business community claims could lower the price of auto insurance.
A minute after the regular session ended, legislators gaveled in for a 30-day special session to tackle the $30 billion operating budget that has come up about $900 million short, consider a string of tax breaks to help businesses struggling to recover from the coronavirus closings but will further hurt the state’s revenue picture, and, if necessary, attempt a veto override should Gov. John Bel Edwards choose to reject the Omnibus Premium Reduction Act of 2020.
Called “tort reform” by supporters, chief sponsor state Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, argued that auto insurance is so expensive because Louisiana’s civil court system differs so much from the rest of the country. His Senate Bill 418 would make technical changes long sought by the business community, such as, extend the time to file a lawsuit; allow more juries, rather than judges, to decide cases; and limit the amount damages that could be considered – all in an effort to lower the price of policies.
Opponents, mostly lawyers who represent injured people, argue that the changes are so sweeping and dramatic that individuals will lose much of their ability to seek and receive recompense for injuries caused in wrecks that were not their fault. Plus, opponents point out that while the wording of the measure suggests insurance companies lower their rates if their litigation costs go down, nothing in the bill requires insurers to do so.
Legislation that supporters say will lower auto insurance rates and opponents contend will seriously limit an injured person’s ability to seek…
Talbot and his supporters spent the weekend with Edwards and his staff hoping to negotiate a compromise that would keep the governor from vetoing the legislation. He purposely had refused to accept amendment wording after the House passed the measure Friday in order to cobble out an agreement with the governor and avoid a historically rare veto override fight whose outcome remains unsure.
About a half hour before the end of the regular session, after a day of negotiating mostly over the wording of how to limit medical costs that could be considered in court and at what threshold the case's value could be set to allow trial by jury instead and judge, Talbot and legislative leadership emerged from behind closed doors.
“Unfortunately, we did not come to what I call an agreement of sorts," Talbot said. "But we did change this bill from the way it come out from the Senate floor and the House floor. I think it is a great bill. I am proud of it.”
Their choices at that juncture were to let the bill die and start over from scratch on Tuesday in special session or rush to get a final vote that would send SB418 to the governor's desk and face the possibility of a veto fight. They chose the latter course.
Edwards wouldn’t comment Monday night. His press office indicated the governor would answer questions on Wednesday.
The legislation finally passed the Senate on a vote of 28-10 – two more than the two-thirds necessary to override a gubernatorial veto. The House approved the measure on a vote of 66-31, four less than needed to sustain an override.
Beyond the debate over how Louisiana's civil justice system impacted auto insurance rates, the regular session was strange and unprecedented by any reckoning.
The annual gathering opened March 9, the day the first Louisiana resident tested positive for coronavirus. A week later, lawmakers met just long enough to recess. But for one short meeting on March 31 to handle some paperwork, the State Capitol was locked down for 49 days.
The Democratic governor and Republican legislators plan to spend the weekend negotiating long-fought legislation that supporters say will lowe…
Two lawmakers tested positive, a third had all the symptoms and went to the hospital but wasn’t tested, and a fourth died, freshman Rep. Reggie Bagala, R-Cut Off.
Legislators returned on May 4 with promises that they’d focus on rebuilding the economy after six weeks of being closed in hopes of stemming the spread of the pandemic. But their agenda was crammed with hundreds of bills.
Few everyday citizens and advocacy groups showed up. And the business community pressed bucket list legislation, such as suspending the franchise tax.
Legislators agreed to expand Louisiana's medical marijuana program to cover nearly any condition doctors want to treat. Parishes will get to vote on whether to legalize sports betting. And people can carry guns into church with the permission of the pastor but not the congregation.
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, during a press conference on the State Capitol steps after Monday’s work, said the business leaders, who comprised a task force dedicated to the economic recovery from the coronavirus, would guide their efforts in the month-long special session.
“We have a plan to try to put Louisiana businesses back to work,” Cortez said, adding lawmakers will debate several tax breaks measures for businesses to see which ones have the best return on investment.
Cortez also noted that of the 41 items that can be taken up in the special session, more than a dozen are related to the budget and capital outlay, and others, like tort reform, were added “just in case” they couldn’t pass them in the regular session.
Even though legislators must legally restart the budget process from scratch in the special session, House Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, R-Houma, noted that they have a budget bill that was sent to the Senate last week. Using that measure as the starting point, Zeringue said his committee will begin conducting hearings Tuesday and take a vote by Friday.
He didn't expect any major changes to the spending plan that was passed by the House, which largely mirrored the governor’s plan to use more than $1 billion in coronavirus aid to balance the current and upcoming fiscal year budgets.
Lawmakers in the waning minutes of session also passed legislation that would take $300 million of the $811 million in federal coronavirus aid destined for local governments and use it instead on a grant program for businesses.
The bill, which would leave $511 million for local governments, has earned the ire of Gov. Edwards, who said he wants to allow governments to tap into the full $811 million, even as his administration says it is unlikely they’ll be able to use it all.
Republicans pushed the legislation as a way to send more money to small businesses, who would be eligible for money under the bill if they were owned by Louisianans and were hurt by a drop in business or shutdown from the coronavirus, among other rules.
Capitol news bureau staff writers Tyler Bridges, Sam Karlin and Will Sentell contributed to this report.