The coronavirus pandemic has done something that the Republican-controlled Legislature had not achieved during John Bel Edwards’ first four years in office: Put the Democratic governor completely on the defensive with conservative legislators.
Consumed by the public health care emergency on a daily basis, Edwards had to shelve his priorities during the abbreviated regular legislative session that ends on June 1 and asked lawmakers to focus only on a limited list of bills required for the state to operate next year.
Instead, the Legislature’s Republican leaders have allowed a broader array of measures backed by business groups and social conservatives to steam forward.
As a result, bills that are advancing would kill lawsuits filed by coastal parishes against oil and gas companies, sharply reduce taxes on oil and gas production, limit spending by the state Legislature and ensure that insurers pay out less to people injured in car accidents.
A House committee also passed a measure sponsored by one of the governor’s sharpest critics that directly challenged his authority to decide how and when to reopen the shuttered economy.
Edwards opposes all of the bills.
In September, the Talbot Carmouche Marcello law firm in Baton Rouge announced what it called a landmark settlement with an oil and gas company…
“I don’t think he has the numbers right now to stop anything, although it’s still early. He absolutely has a lot of power,” state Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, the speaker pro tem, said in an interview.
As legislators are well aware, the governor can veto legislation he opposes, can command the attention of the public and the media on a daily basis and has a full complement of goodies he can award to those who do his bidding, including approval of local road projects and plum appointments to state boards and commissions for legislators’ friends and political supporters.
A series of factors have weakened Edwards’ hand, some related to last year’s election and some related to the fall-out from the coronavirus.
Voters elected a more conservative Legislature, thanks in good measure to a flood of big dollars from business and oil and gas interests and the steady decline of the Democratic Party in Louisiana. Term limits, meanwhile, claimed a number of influential House Democrats along with state Senate President, John Alario, R-Westwego, the governor’s most important ally.
Edwards scored a win when House Democrats allied with Republicans in January to elect state Rep. Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, as the next speaker. Schexnayder outmaneuvered state Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, who was backed by outside business interests opposed to the governor.
The dynamics changed in mid-March when combating the coronavirus became Edwards’ overriding focus. That has hurt the governor in the State Capitol: Lawmakers of both parties complain that he has given them short shrift since then.
With a leadership vacuum on the Democratic side, members of the two House Republican factions say they have put aside their enmity in recent days to work together.
“The speaker has done a good job of unifying the Republican delegation,” said state Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, who had been on the outs with Schexnayder because he supported Mack. It was Miguez who sponsored the House resolution that sought to undermine the governor’s authority on reopening.
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Lawmakers do not have enough time to override any Edwards veto before the session ends, based on an analysis of the legislative calendar. But veteran observers of the Legislature believe that Republicans are slow-walking the budget to avoid passing it by June 1. This would force a special session in June when they could try to override an Edwards veto on non-budget bills or try to extract concessions from him on the budget.
The House Appropriations Committee will not approve the budget – the first step in the legislative process – until Thursday at the earliest, state Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma, the committee chairman, said Saturday. This late date seems to preclude passage of the budget by both the House and Senate by June 1.
Ironically, the governor’s standing with the Legislature appears to have hit a low at a time when polls show the public is giving him his highest marks overall for his handling of the coronavirus.
“It will be interesting to see how that (his approval rating) translates into the work in the building,” state Sen. Rick Ward III, R-Port Allen, said, referring to the Capitol.
Edwards seemed to be in a strong position with the Legislature earlier this year after quarterbacking a multi-year effort to turn state budget deficits into surpluses. He won a teacher pay raise during the 2019 legislative session and narrowly pulled off a tough re-election in November despite the best effort by President Donald Trump and national Republicans to defeat him.
When he stood before lawmakers on the opening day of the legislative session on March 9, Edwards was buttressed by an expanding economy that gave him every reason to think it would finance his key priorities: More money for K-12 schools, a second teacher pay raise, more money for public colleges and universities, an expansion of early childhood education and a greater focus on creating jobs in rural Louisiana.
In his opening address, Edwards also disclosed the first coronavirus case in Louisiana, detected that same day. As it morphed into a pandemic, the deadly virus disrupted lives throughout the state and forced the governor to begin working around the clock to oversee the state’s response.
Evictions in Louisiana will remain suspended through at least June 5th as part of the state’s phased reopening, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thu…
The Legislature soon recessed for six weeks, reconvening on May 4.
By then, the shutdown of Louisiana’s economy had blown apart Edwards’ plans, leaving the state with a giant budget deficit. He mothballed his legislative priorities since it was clear the state would have to cut programs, not spend more.
As legislators returned to Baton Rouge, Edwards and many legislators said the Legislature should pass only the annual budget and other measures required by July 1, the start of the next fiscal year. The coronavirus has already claimed the life of one legislator, state Rep. Reggie Bagala, R- Cut Off.
But Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, decided to have lawmakers consider dozens of other measures, many sought by business interests or social conservatives, while instituting measures in the State Capitol to limit the virus’ possible spread.
The Senate Natural Resources Committee approved Senate Bill 359, sponsored by state Sen. Bob Hensgens, R-Gueydan, which would kill the 42 lawsuits filed by the Carmouche law firm for six parishes against almost 100 oil and gas companies. Edwards, who opposes the bill, has strongly supported the lawsuits, saying they would force the companies to restore coastal wetlands and marshes that they destroyed during their drilling and production activities. The full Senate will hear the bill Monday.
The House Ways and Means Committee approved House Concurrent Resolution 65, sponsored by state Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, which would suspend oil and gas severance taxes for 14 months. The cost to the state over that time: $300 million.
The committee also approved House Bill 506, sponsored by state Rep. Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, which would permanently reduce the severance tax. The cost would be $9 million next year; it would reach a projected $46 million per year by 2024.
Louisiana House and Senate committees spent hours Tuesday to send to each chamber nearly identically worded tort reform bills that supporters …
A business-led task force appointed by Cortez and Schexnayder called for both measures to help reactivate an industry decimated by the coronavirus.
Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, which favors more spending on health care and education, said the bills would simply exacerbate the state’s budget gap. “The first thing to do when you’re in a hole is to stop digging,” he said.
The full House on Friday approved House Bill 118, by state Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, which would limit state spending to 98% of the available money recognized by a state board, the Revenue Estimating Conference. It would force a $200 million cut in annual spending without specifying how to make the cuts.
Both the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee and the Senate Judiciary A Committee advanced measures sought by the insurance industry and the Louisiana Association for Business and Industry that would reduce payouts to car accident victims and the attorneys who represent them.
State Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, the sponsor of House Bill 9, and state Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, the sponsor of Senate Bill 418, said the measures would reduce car insurance rates by at least 10%. Critics said that was nothing more than a hopeful promise.
Edwards has been a strong ally of lawyers who represent plaintiffs, who were major financial backers of his re-election campaign.
The governor’s handling of whether or not to extend his stay-at-home order on April 27 became a sore point for many legislators.
On April 23, during a conference call, Edwards told lawmakers that he was likely to lift that order to move to the Phase 1 partial reopening on May 1.
But on April 27, Edwards surprised them by announcing that his public health advisers unanimously recommended the day before that he stick with the stay-at-home order until at least May 15. He gave Schexnayder and Cortez a heads-up just minutes beforehand but not the rank-and-file.
The governor was on a conference call with the White House until just before his scheduled public announcement and didn’t have time to spread the word more widely, Tina Vanichchagorn, Edwards’ special counsel, said in an interview.
Not alerting them angered many legislators, and this created an opportunity for Miguez to push House Concurrent Resolution 58, which would have halted Edwards' ability to enforce restrictions on businesses and residents.
It passed, 9-7, when two moderate Republicans, Magee and state Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, voted to undercut the governor.
Ivey said later that his vote reflected his constituents’ call to reopen the economy.
Magee said later that he was using the vote to signal his unhappiness to Edwards over the communication failure before he announced the April 27 stay-at-home extension.
An upbeat Gov. John Bel Edwards said Friday he is confident state residents will handle the reopening of Louisiana's economy with good sense a…
“The Legislature is a co-equal branch of government and has to be included in the discussion,” Magee said, adding that the governor’s staff has stepped up its contact with him since then.
Many Democrats also complain they have barely gotten direction from the governor and that this has hurt his legislative effort, even as they recognize that the coronavirus response has occupied him.
State Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, a freshman who worked for then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco and later then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu, was sharply critical of Edwards in an interview Wednesday but softened his words after the governor asked to meet with him for 30 minutes Friday.
“He and his team are committed to improving the communication with the Legislature, and I’m optimistic it will be better moving forward,” Hughes said Friday.
Vanichchagorn said she understood the legislators’ frustration. “But I don’t know how practically he could manage the public health emergency – we've been working 14-16 hours a day and have been at GOHSEP focused on the emergency – and also talk to each of the (143) members individually," she said. "It's just not manageable."
A major looming issue is whether the Republican leadership can muster the two-thirds vote in each chamber to override an Edwards veto. What is clear is that conservatives will not have enough time to override a vetoed bill during the regular session.
The state Constitution gives the governor 10 days to decide whether to veto a bill sent to him while the Legislature is in session. State law also gives him an additional two days to return it to the Legislature. None of the conservatives’ bills are slated to pass the Legislature before that 12-day clock begins ticking in advance of adjournment at 6 p.m. on June 1.
The Republican leadership might then have the opportunity to override Edwards during the special session called to approve the budget.