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Under the gaze of the statue of William C. C. Claiborne, Louisiana's first elected governor, Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, at lectern, and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, thrid from right, answer questions at a press conference in Memorial Hall before the start of the Special Legislative Session Monday Sept. 28, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.

A legislative panel on Tuesday advanced legislation that would give lawmakers oversight – but not an up-or-down vote – over the governor’s emergency declarations, a response to complaints by Republican lawmakers that they have been sidelined by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration in coronavirus restrictions.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder filed a resolution that, if passed, would nullify Edwards' entire emergency declaration until a month after the special session ends in late October, effectively lifting all coronavirus restrictions. 

The moves come on the first full day of a month-long special session where Republican lawmakers have prioritized, among other things, giving themselves a voice in Edwards' coronavirus rules. 

Schexnayder said in an interview his resolution mirrors a petition circulated by conservative House members, but he thinks would avoid legal challenges that effort could bring. 

While he is working on a bill that is similar to the one passed by the Senate Judiciary B Committee Tuesday – giving lawmakers oversight over the emergency declarations –  Schexnayder said it's important to have the resolution ready to move through the process.

"It's just a tool in our toolbox. We need to be able to work and maneuver through the session," Schexnayder, a Gonzales Republican, said. "It's a good negotiating point to have." 

Senate Bill 29, brought by Senate President Page Cortez, actually makes it more difficult to cancel the governor’s emergency declaration via petition, which is a priority of conservative Republicans upset with Edwards’ restrictions. The bill requires a petition to win the majority of both chambers, not just one, to nullify the order.

It also creates a new legislative panel of 10 lawmakers that Edwards, or future governors, would have to notify before extending an emergency declaration beyond 30 days. At least eight of those members would be Republicans under the current makeup of the Legislature. 

That panel could hold hearings, but would not have the power to reject the emergency proclamation.

Cortez, a Lafayette Republican, said he and the co-author, Sen. Patrick McMath, initially gave the committee the ability to reject such orders in an early draft of the bill. But they decided the governor should have the power to issue emergency declarations, because Cortez said it was a role of the executive branch.

“I don’t think it’s our job to tell the governor what to do,” Cortez said. "But there are certain checks and balances that ought to be in place.”

“This bill mandates legislative oversight of emergency orders,” McMath, R-Covington, added.

Edwards has rejected the idea the Legislature should have new authority over his ability to make emergency declarations. On Tuesday, Edwards' spokeswoman Christina Stephens said, "the governor's been clear that you cannot manage a public health emergency, especially not a global pandemic like COVID-19, by committee." 

The committee’s approval is just the first step in a long legislative process, and it must pass through the House, where conservatives have railed against Edwards’ restrictions and sought to cancel the emergency order. 

The vote came on the first full day of a month-long special legislative session, called by Republicans, to address what the GOP leaders say are four main issues: Hurricane Laura relief, Edwards’ emergency powers, coronavirus relief and the state’s depleted unemployment trust fund.

Other committees on Tuesday temporarily shelved several bills to give tax breaks to businesses.

And Cortez said lawmakers will file legislation to suspend a law that requires unemployment benefits to be cut, and taxes on businesses to be raised, when the unemployment fund falls below a certain threshold. 

State law requires the Revenue Estimating Conference to predict how much money the unemployment fund will have the following year by Sept. 30, which would set in motion the tax hike and rate cut on Jan. 1. But despite that law, the conference punted until the end of the month on Tuesday. 

"We’re going to buy some time in this legislative session … to mitigate the impact on employers and those receiving the benefits," Cortez said. 

But the emergency powers debate – evidenced Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary B Committee – is expected to be a key feature of the session. Several petitions to nullify Louisiana’s emergency declaration, thereby ending all coronavirus restrictions, are circulating. And a host of lawmakers have filed bills taking aim at Edwards’ rules, many of them giving the Legislature power to reject his declarations.

Several Republican lawmakers have described the petitions as a last-resort option that some see as a negotiating tactic. The House GOP can't override an Edwards veto without help from Democrats or independents, but the petition could hang over his head as he decides what to do with the bills. 

Several of the bills about emergency powers will get their first hearing Wednesday in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"We have several different bills out there that do different things," Schexnayder said. "We're going to look at all of them and see what's the best path to take." 

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com