Rescuing Louisiana's unemployment fund and recovering from Hurricane Laura are the marquee issues for the monthlong legislative session hastily called by the Republican majority to begin 6 p.m. Monday, but a political tug-of-war over Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' orders to curb the coronavirus may take center stage.

The agenda includes 70 topics when lawmakers return to the State Capitol, that will not include the traditional opening address by the governor because legislators called themselves into session. The gathering could last until 6 p.m. Oct. 27.

There is some agreement that for the unemployment trust fund, which has fallen from more than $1 billion to $49.4 million amid skyrocketing claims, the Legislature needs to suspend a state law that would require businesses to pay up to 20% more in taxes and the unemployed to receive less in weekly benefits.

Southwest Louisiana took an estimated $12 billion blow from Hurricane Laura on Aug. 27 and finding ways to provide assistance — other than a massive, unaffordable state bailout — is another priority.

"This storm is a different one," said state Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles. "This storm is just so devastating everywhere you look."

But lingering irritation among some lawmakers, especially in the House, over Edwards' unilateral restrictions on restaurants, bars and churches during the pandemic likely will add political fireworks just days ahead of national and state elections.

"The major issue is going to be one channeling the governor's emergency powers and the Legislature yearning to be the voice of the people independent of the governor," said House GOP Caucus Chairman Blake Miguez, of Erath.

Edwards quickly denounced the push, saying the state Constitution clearly gives him authority to grapple with a public health emergency and that any such effort is bound to fail. “You cannot respond to a public health emergency by committee," he told reporters.

But the governor is facing a Legislature wanting to flex its muscles and take more control over the pronouncements that have limited business activity and led to unprecedented levels of unemployment.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzalez, seemed especially keen to call the special session, two Republican legislators said privately, because he is facing a leadership challenge from conservatives who are unhappy that he hasn’t signed any of the petitions and who believe that he has not done enough to challenge Edwards.

Earlier this month, Edwards announced the state was moving to Phase 3 in its economic recovery, which eased restrictions on restaurants, businesses and other services.

He has said repeatedly that he has tried to strike a balance between saving lives — Louisiana has long been a national leader for coronavirus cases per capita — and the need for state residents to earn a living.

The governor's approach won praise last week from Deborah Birx, a key member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, during her visit to LSU.

"Louisiana made changes that saved people's lives," Birx said. "We've learned from Louisiana that masks work."

Senate Finance Committee Chair Bodi White, R-Central, noted that Louisiana's governor may have more power than any governor in the nation. "Right now, with this pandemic and so much executive authority, it really stands out," White said.

On the other hand, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Sam Jenkins, of Shreveport, sees no need for such measures.

"The governor has shown some good leadership there,” Jenkins said. "You just really can't have 144 members of the Legislature determining the best route to go in managing the pandemic."

Republican Sen. Rick Ward III, of Port Allen, said talk of curbing Edwards' pandemic authority is not an attempt to "kick dirt in the governor's eyes."

Ward said it is worth checking on how other states handle the issue and whether new checks are needed when proclamations "have continued on for so many months, or for some extended period of time."

Prairieville Rep. Tony Bacala, a Republican known for his criticism of Edwards’ health policies, shares the concern.

"I'd like to see the Legislature have more input in the extension of the public health emergency and have more input to the extent that the governor can issue an executive order," Bacala said. "Those two things encompass what every Republican would like to see."

Bacala said he has been working with a group of legislators who will launch another petition drive if Edwards will not agree to give lawmakers some kind of say with the public health emergency proclamations.

The main petition aimed at repealing the governor’s public health emergency declaration, and thereby ending the phases, was launched earlier this year by Shreveport Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a longtime Republican critic of Edwards. House members have said that after seven months, Seabaugh has about 45 of the 53 signatures he needs.

Republican legislators are feeling heat from constituents who believe they have not done enough to challenge Edwards’ orders.

Michael Lunsford, who lives in Breaux Bridge and has created the Citizens for a New Louisiana Facebook page, has run digital ads in the districts of 20-25 Republican legislators that call on people to ask legislators whether they have signed Seabaugh’s petition.

“The Legislature is supposed to represent the people, but they have not been doing that,” Lunsford said in an interview. He added that getting 53 signatures on Seabaugh’s petition can force Edwards to negotiate giving them some role in whether to extend the public health emergency rules.

Speaker Schexnayder has been feeling heat within the Republican caucus. At one recent meeting, according to legislative sources, state Rep. Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodaux, sharply questioned Schexnayder on why he had not signed Seabaugh’s petition.

Eight days ago, Schexnayder wrote on Facebook that the Seabaugh petition “has been sold to the public as the magic bullet solution to the Governor's COVID-19 restrictions that comes with zero consequences and completely opens up the economy. That's just not the truth.”

Schexnayder said the state law that authorizes the petition drives “is so vaguely written and contradictory to other state law that it would immediately be enjoined and sent to court by the governor where it would sit for months and nothing would happen. That's not a solution — it's a talking point to say we tried.”

The Edwards administration has kept any petition from securing enough signatures by warning lawmakers that overturning his public health emergency proclamation would violate a state agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and could force a cut off of federal money that has helped the state weather the pandemic.

Besides, Edwards administration officials say, even a petition that did obtain signatures from a majority of members cannot legally nullify the governor’s public health emergency proclamations.

Backing that view is Terry Ryder, who was Gov. Mike Foster’s deputy chief of staff. It was Foster who signed the legislation into law.

Ryder said the 2003 law was created to address a situation where a virus was so lethal that it killed numerous lawmakers.

State Rep. Mark Wright, who considered circulating his own petition, instead has filed a bill for the special session that would require the governor to win legislative approval after 30 days to renew a public health emergency order.

“The Legislature has limited ability to have an impact in this area,” Wright said. “That’s flawed.”

While unemployment is an urgent topic, how to stabilize the pot of money that underwrites the weekly checks is unclear.

Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said resolving the unemployment problem is his group's top priority. "The good thing is I think we will get a consensus," Waguespack said.

The trust fund had well over a billion dollars prior to the COVID-19 crisis. The fund has around $49 million and is drawing down about $35 million per week, said Ava Dejoie, secretary of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, the state agency that oversees unemployment payments.

That amount is so low that it automatically would trigger the 20% tax surcharge on businesses and the 10% cut in unemployment benefits to begin to replenish the fund. Businesses would have to pay from $2 to $54 more per employee in taxes a year, depending on the business, and the maximum payment to laid-off workers would drop from $247 per week to $221.

Edwards on Friday proposed moving $175 million of what he called unspent dollars in the $275 million Main Street Recovery Grant Program, which is aimed at helping small businesses. He wants to send $75 million to help restore the unemployment trust fund and another $75 million to help local governments, whose sales tax collections have plummeted. The remaining $25 million would go to help businesses shuttered by the pandemic, including bars.

Republican State Treasurer John Schroder, who oversees the Main Street program, denounced Edwards’ proposal and said $255 million of the $275 million is obligated, and that 37,000 applications have arrived.

With so many items available for discussion during the special session, some legislators will be offer ideas that are far from the mainstream. State Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City, for instance, wants to ban any potential requirement mandating a vaccine for the coronavirus.

Lawmakers can also take up during the special session bills to cut taxes for oil and gas companies and reduce various other taxes on other businesses.

The call also seeks to address concerns by officials in Cameron, Calcasieu and Beauregard parishes that the state education funding formula will shortchange public schools, which have suffered $300 million in physical damages in Calcasieu and have so many of their students displaced because Hurricane Laura.

Lake Charles Sen. Johns noted that McNeese State University suffered $200 million in damages and SOWELA Technical Community College faces another $150 million in repairs.

"We are looking at anything to help our universities but particularly our K-12 education," Johns said.

Senate Education Committee Chair Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, said state aid for affected school districts should remain intact — called hold harmless — despite steep drops in enrollment.

"We have to make sure we don't hold these students responsible from a financial perspective," Fields said.

Capitol news bureau editor Mark Ballard contributed to this report.

Information for the 2020 Second Extraordinary Legislative Session

  • Assembly Convenes: 6 p.m. Monday
  • Meeting Adjourns: by 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27
  • Prefiled legislation: 14 House bills, 12 Senate bills
  • Next regularly scheduled Legislative Session convenes: April 12, 2021

Main topics

  • Buildup unemployment trust fund
  • Find money for hurricane-damaged schools in southwest Louisiana
  • Reduce taxes for energy industry and other businesses
  • Add more time to prepare for counting mail ballots
  • Allow people to refuse being vaccinated
  • Limit governor’s power to continue health care emergency declarations
  • Establish tax credit for companies providing broadband service

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Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.