A regular session that began 80 days ago with Gov. John Bel Edwards planning to invest more money in education ends Monday at 6 p.m. with the governor having discarded that goal and on the defense against Republican initiatives sought by the business community.
Edwards and his Democratic allies have succeeded in stopping some of those measures, but they will remain on defense with the Republican leadership having called the Legislature into a 30-day special session that begins one minute after the regular session ends.
The move reflects how Republican lawmakers are moving away from the traditional legislative deference toward the governor. This is only the second time that legislators have called themselves into a special session.
Legislators failed to fulfill their main task during the regular session: pass the budget that will allow the state to pay teachers, provide health care to the poor, operate the state jails, operate the public colleges and universities — and fund thousands of other activities — during the next fiscal year that begins on July 1.
Lawmakers will tackle that job again during the special session — at a cost to taxpayers of $50,000 to $60,000 per day — and also attempt to pass a series of business-backed measures that were included in the 41-item call.
Edwards opposes many of those issues.
The biggest uncertainty before the regular session concludes involves the business-led effort to limit the legal rights of people injured in car accidents with the promise that the changes will lower car and truck insurance rates that are the highest in the country.
The House and the Senate have approved differing versions of the measure, Senate Bill 418, by state Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge. But Talbot and his supporters have stalled the effort to seek final legislative passage to see if they can negotiate a deal with Edwards and his trial attorney allies.
State Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma and the speaker pro tem, said Sunday that if the two sides don’t reach an agreement by Monday afternoon, legislative supporters of what they call tort reform will pass the measure before the 6 p.m. deadline and send it to the governor. He has indicated he will veto it unless the two sides can forge a compromise first during the special session.
Legislators also must resolve a dispute over whether they or the governor will determine who gets to decide how to spend up to $300 million in federal aid for local governments.
Lawmakers convened on March 9 amid high expectations that they would tap into a budget surplus to fund Edwards’ request to provide more money for teacher pay, K-12 schools and colleges and universities.
Edwards began his opening address to lawmakers by disclosing the first coronavirus victim in Louisiana that day. As the virus spread rapidly throughout the state, Edwards began devoting virtually all of his time to a burgeoning crisis that for a time seemed likely to overwhelm the state’s hospital state system.
Lawmakers recessed on March 16 and didn’t resume their work until May 4.
By then, Edwards had abandoned his plans to invest more in education, with tax revenues plummeting from the collapsing economy.
In the meantime, legislators pressed forward with issues sought by business groups that had nothing to do with the pandemic but which they said would encourage business investment to help the state’s economy recover its footing.
One effort failed. Senate bills 359 and 440 sought to kill lawsuits filed by parish governments that accuse oil companies of destroying coastal marshes and wetlands during decades of their drilling and exploration activities.
The defeat of the two bills represented a victory for leaders of the seven coastal parishes that have sued the oil and gas companies — most notably Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng and the Jefferson Parish Council, who rallied most of their state legislators to oppose it. It was also a victory for the Talbot Carmouche Marcello law firm, which represents six of the seven parishes and has spent $9 million so far pursuing the cases, according to attorney John Carmouche.
The Legislature did approve Senate Concurrent Resolution 7, by state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, that urges the parishes to drop the lawsuits and says that the parishes “improperly” hired Carmouche and the Jones Swanson law firm, which represents Orleans Parish. Edwards cannot veto a resolution, which is an expression of intent but does not change state law.
The Legislature approved measures that would expand medical marijuana, loosen some restrictions on carrying a concealed handgun in church, establish a regulatory framework for fantasy sports betting — legislators still need to establish the tax rates for the betting to begin — and ease the delivery of alcohol by such companies as UberEats and Waitr.
Among the 41 items in the special session are several measures that would cut business taxes.
But the first order of business will be passing the budget. The House Appropriations Committee restarts the budget process Tuesday. State Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma and the committee chairman, estimated Sunday that Appropriations will pass the bill on Friday to have it before the full House on Friday. From there, it will have to go through the Senate.