Leaders of the Republican-controlled state Legislature on Friday called lawmakers into a month-long special session beginning immediately after the regular session ends on June 1, with a litany of issues including the state budget, the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and legal changes sought by insurance companies.
The move gives GOP legislative leaders, not the governor, the ability to dictate what legislation can be considered, and allows the Legislature more time to craft the state’s operating budget, which lawmakers are unlikely to complete before they adjourn on June 1.
It also gives them the opportunity to cut taxes, rework the state’s largest tax incentive program, overhaul the state’s civil justice system and take up a host of other issues – a list of 41 topics with which Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards takes issue.
Still, while governors have historically set the stage for such special sessions, Edwards said Friday the move “doesn’t cause (him) any problems.” The state Constitution gives lawmakers the authority to call a special session, he noted, and lawmakers will likely be required to hold a special session because it appears they won’t pass crucial legislation, such as the state budget and construction budget, by June 1. The Legislature must approve those items by July 1 or state government will lose its ability to spend money.
“It's a little bit, I think, problematic to have 41 objects in the call, because I think it'll operate a little bit more as a general session rather than a concentrated special session, where we're focusing on those things that have to get done,” Edwards said. “And it's unfortunate they weren’t able to use the time they had from May 4 through June 1 to get done the essential work to get done the essential work of the state of Louisiana.”
The Legislature has only called itself into session once before, in 2011, under then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, to take up redistricting.
Legislative leaders – House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, R-Houma, Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and President Pro Tem Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton -- collected the needed signatures in each chamber Friday on a petition calling for lawmakers to consider 41 separate items beginning at 6:01 p.m. on June 1, or 1 minute after the regular session ends. The special session would extend as long as June 30 and cost taxpayers $50,000 to $60,000 per day.
“If we go into a special session, I think we should call ourselves in. It’s our job,” Cortez said in an interview Thursday. “I don’t see any reason why we should go in under any other call. If we’re the ones that need to put the budget together and we know how much time we need to do it.”
The legislative leaders needed a majority of members in each chamber on the petition to call the special session.
The decision by the legislative leaders to call the special session on their own, instead of waiting for the governor, is the clearest example yet of the Republican-dominated Legislature exerting more independence from the governor, after winning an historic number of seats during elections last fall.
But Magee, a Houma Republican, said legislative leaders aren’t aiming to be “antagonistic” with the Democratic governor. Instead, he said lawmakers want a seat at the table – not only on legislation but also the recovery from coronavirus.
“I think part of the deal is trying to make sure we’re involved in all of the conversations and the governor can’t dismiss us because we’re not here,” said Magee, a moderate who has worked with the administration but blasted Edwards’ office earlier this month for what he saw as a lack of communication. “I think that’s the thinking is we keep all of our roles to play still alive.”
Legislators could try to override any vetoes by the governor during a special session, especially on the so-called tort reform legislation that would reduce the insurance industry payouts to car accident victims and their attorneys. That is the number one priority of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the most influential business lobby at the State Capitol.
The session will also put the Republican-dominated Legislature in Baton Rouge amid the state’s phased reopening. Edwards faced a backlash from a wide array of Republican lawmakers earlier this month for extending the state’s stay-at-home order until May 15, and GOP lawmakers even floated the idea of undermining his executive order. The governor has said the state could enter the Phase 2 reopening on June 5.
Democratic lawmakers, who were left out of the special session deliberations, blasted the move. Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa, stood at the House lectern Friday and read each of the 41 items on the petition, and noted the session could cost up to $1.8 million.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Sam Jenkins, of Shreveport, called the list of topics “heavily pro-business.” The list includes many of the priorities laid out by a task force of business executives formed by Schexnayder and Cortez to develop responses to the coronavirus.
Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, noted in a tweet that Democrats had allied with Schexnayder to elect him as speaker over another Republican candidate favored by business interests.
Besides the tort issues sought by the business lobby, Cortez and Schexnayder also want lawmakers to consider revising the generous tax breaks for companies under the Industrial Tax Exemption Program and setting up the rules for people to begin betting on so-called fantasy sports games.
“I wish there were more things in there to consider for the people,” Jenkins said. “Democrats did not participate in putting together the call. I’m disappointed Democrats didn’t have a chance to participate in putting together the call.”
While Magee and House Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, R-Houma, have indicated they want to pass a budget by June 1, and intend to get it to the Senate Tuesday, the Legislature appears unlikely to complete the operating budget, or the construction budget, by June 1. House Ways and Means Chairman Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, who handles the capital outlay construction budget, told his colleagues that it was impossible to pass “responsible” budgets by June 1.
The Legislature returned on May 4 from a six-week hiatus because of the coronavirus with the goal of taking up high-priority bills. Lawmakers have pushed a host of ideas, including tax cuts for the oil and gas industry and small business, “tort reform” and a wide range of other bills, many of them inconsequential. The budget was delayed in part by the fact that the state didn’t have updated revenue estimates to account for the coronavirus until mid-May, and Edwards’ administration got its proposed changes to representatives a week ago.
Sen. Bodi White, R-Central and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said by the time his committee gets the budget, it will only have several days before the session must end. He also said he has new members on the committee and a full Senate to contend with.
"I'm going to do what I can, but if they give me two or three days it gets pretty hard," he said.