Louisiana's elected leaders have publicly demonstrated a united front since the state's coronavirus outbreak emerged in mid-March, but that bipartisan approach is starting to collapse, particularly at the State Capitol.
The catalyst is Gov. John Bel Edwards' decision to extend Louisiana's statewide stay-at-home order through May 15. The Democratic governor said the move is rooted in science and public safety. Republicans are bristling, preferring a parish-by-parish approach to loosening restrictions that have shuttered businesses and forced hundreds of thousands into unemployment.
But while some GOP elected officials are publicly sticking to muted complaints, criticism from Republican lawmakers who feel sidelined from the decision-making is more direct, bubbling over on social media, in petitions and in interviews. Democrats are pushing back in defense of Edwards.
In other words, legislative politics is starting to return to normal even in a pandemic that has killed nearly 2,000 people in Louisiana so far.
Some GOP legislators are trying to use a little-known provision of Louisiana law to nullify Edwards' emergency order, a proposal the governor called “completely irresponsible.” Senate Republican leader Sharon Hewitt of Slidell has started an online petition and launched a statewide radio ad calling on Edwards to reopen businesses on a parish-by-parish basis.
Other Republican lawmakers say they think the governor's unaware of the discontent in their districts, and they question why his administration didn't do more over the last month to tell businesses in the “gray area” of his stay-at-home order that they could have remained open with some restrictions.
Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats are sparring over plans to restart the legislative session Monday.
“I think it’s not a bipartisan mood in the Capitol because members are at home in their districts, they're feeling isolated, they're not getting communication from the administration and they want to do something. Their constituents are looking to them to do something,” said Rep. Tanner Magee, the Houma Republican who is the second-ranking member of the House. “It’s pushing people out to the wings.”
Edwards' handling of the stay-at-home order struck a particular nerve with Republicans who thought the governor had signaled a likely lessening of business restrictions would arrive in May. Instead, Edwards notified the Republican legislative leaders — Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder — that he was keeping his order in place for additional weeks only minutes before announcing the extension publicly.
Cortez said he heard about the extension from lobbyists before Edwards.
“The legislators feel like they have been left out of the process of dealing with a disaster,” said Cortez, of Lafayette. “We have very little understanding of why he did what he did. You’d like to understand the methodology behind it.”
Some conservative Republicans are so unhappy they're proposing to use a rare legal maneuver that would allow them to override the governor's disaster orders, through a written petition of a majority of either the House or Senate.
Republican Rep. Alan Seabaugh of Shreveport, a chief promoter of the proposed maneuver, said the toll of the economic shutdown is too much to continue. He told KPEL radio: “At some point, you have to figure out or accept the fact that the cure is worse than the disease."
Schexnayder and Cortez said they don't support the petition because it appears to risk hundreds of millions in federal disaster aid for businesses and for the state. Edwards agreed and said he doesn't expect lawmakers will back the idea.
“That would be just completely irresponsible and nonsensical to be the only state in the nation without an emergency declaration in place for the public health emergency that is COVID-19 when we're the sixth highest state in cases per capita in the country,” the governor said.
As communication between lawmakers and the governor appeared to break down, the restart of the legislative session was causing friction between Republicans ready to return and Democrats who say it's unsafe.
One House member, Republican Rep. Reggie Bagala of Lafourche Parish, died from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus. Democratic Rep. Ted James of Baton Rouge was hospitalized for days and doesn't intend to return to the Capitol on Monday.
Cortez, who had a minor bout with the virus, and Schexnayder pledged to take intense cleaning and protective measures.
Edwards has steered clear of the timing debate, saying that's the Legislature's decision.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000.