An unprecedented special session called by Republican legislators during the coronavirus crisis still must resolve two key issues before adjournment at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Legislators still must approve the operating and construction budgets that will fund health care, education, prisons and countless other state activities beginning July 1. Members of the House and Senate seem in broad agreement thanks to an infusion of $1 billion in federal money that left lawmakers having to make only minimal budget cuts.
The Republican-led Legislature also must settle on a plan on the most contentious issue of the year — the effort to limit court payments to car accident victims and their attorneys. The Republicans are advancing several different measures that they call tort reform, in the face of a likely veto from Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, if he believes they go too far in limiting the legal rights of the car accident victims.
The House adjourned after 30 minutes Sunday without conducting any substantive business.
“If we don’t do something, we’ll lose a lot of businesses that are struggling,” state Sen. Barry Milligan, R-Shreveport, told his colleagues at one point.
Democrats objected to no avail, with state Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, taking the lead in warning that giving away money during a time of budget uncertainty is not fiscally wise. HB11 and HB13 both require House passage to win final legislative approval.
The Senate also gave final legislative approval to naming Christopher Keaton, a well-regarded veteran budget analyst, to be the next legislative fiscal officer. In that role, Keaton will oversee an 18-person office that plays a key role in determining the fate of money bills by estimating their cost. Keaton has promised to include “dynamic scoring” in his office’s analysis, something sought by Republican lawmakers who believe that the traditional analysis underestimates the benefits of cutting taxes.
The regular and special sessions have seen the full expression of the most conservative Republican majority in memory, one that is bent on providing tax breaks to businesses and targeting the activities of trial lawyers, who are perhaps the biggest campaign contributors to the Democratic Party.
Legislators have carried out their work under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. Edwards announced the first known case in Louisiana in his speech opening the Legislature on March 9. Legislators met for another week but, with infections exploding, they recessed until May 4.
The state economy collapsed after Edwards was forced to shut down most business activities to control the virus’s spread. The virus has kept the public from the State Capitol. Most Republican legislators have disregarded the request by Edwards and public health officials that everyone wear masks in public settings.
By late May, it was clear that the Republican leadership was slow-walking passage of the budget to force a special session in case Edwards vetoed the tort bill passed at the behest of business interests.
All but once before, governors had called legislators into special session, but this time, Republican legislators called themselves into the extra session, with a 41-item agenda sought by the business interests.
Several clear themes have emerged during both sessions. One is that Edwards has been forced onto the defense after the fallout from the coronavirus meant he could not achieve his chief legislative goals — more money for teachers, K-12 schools and public colleges and universities. For perhaps the first time, legislators have pushed an agenda directly at odds with a governor, who traditionally has set the legislative agenda.
Another theme is the Republican effort to try to aid businesses, both through a $300 million expenditure of federal money and a host of tax breaks. At the same time, to save money, Republican senators also seem intent on withholding a planned pay raise that would average $1,400 to 38,000 classified state employees.
Democrats, meanwhile, sought to aid unemployed workers — 275,000 people were jobless in April — and workers who earn less than $50,000.
Edwards vetoed the tort bill on June 12, but Republicans have lacked the votes to override him.
Instead, they have pushed various measures, including House Bill 57 by Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, which would change how Louisiana conducts jury trials with the claim that this will reduce the state’s high car insurance rates. HB57 is being negotiated in conference committee. Two conservative legislators — state Sen. Robert Mills, R-Minden, and state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport — are pushing resolutions the governor can't veto that would suspend some of the impacted laws should Schexnayder's measure not pass or be rejected by Edwards.