Special Session 3 092520

The Louisiana House chamber has been fitted with Plexiglass screens between seats.

Gov. John Bel Edwards was correct when he said the special session, which only is supposed to focus on one or two items, will be more like a regular session with 70 issues on the agenda.

Most of those items, however, are lagniappe.

The Republican majority has but one goal for the 29-day specially called assembly that begins Monday at 6 p.m.: Clip the powers of the only Democratic governor in the Deep South.

True, legislators also will try to shore up the 35-year-old unemployment trust fund and to rearrange the school funding formula to account for the Hurricane Laura diaspora. But topping the Republicans’ list of priorities is limiting the governor’s power that since March unilaterally imposed public health emergency proclamations that have shut down key parts of Louisiana’s economy in hopes of curbing the deadly coronavirus.

“The major issue is going to be one challenging the governor’s emergency powers and the Legislature’s yearning to be the voice of the people, independent of the governor,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Blake Miguez, of Erath. “Those constituents are speaking loud and clear. They want the economy back.”

Two, soon to be three, petitions aimed at immediately ending the health emergency are making the rounds. After months, the Republican right wing in a majority GOP House has failed to get the necessary 53 signatures. State senators, two-thirds of whom are Republicans, have no such petitions.

Should the House sign-up the requisite 53 representatives, all that likely will happen is an epic court battle between the governor and Legislature.

Written during the SARS-CoV crisis in the early 2000s, a law was passed giving a majority in either chamber the ability to end a health-related crisis order. But the origin of that law is more a chain-of-command function — what happens if a governor succumbs — than a proactive spike to the executive’s power. Republicans counter that what the Legislature gives, the Legislature can take away.

In the meantime, legislators are looking at various avenues to structurally curb a governor’s power, preferably one that doesn’t cross the governor’s desk. A resolution to suspend various laws for a year is a possibility. A change in the Louisiana Constitution would be more lasting but requires two-thirds approval in both chambers as well as a majority of voters statewide.

“During this health emergency and any in the future, the people — through their elected representatives — must have more influence, knowledge, and input on making the decision on whether governmental restrictions are needed, and if so, to what degree,” Republican Rep. Thomas Pressly, a Shreveport attorney, wrote in an op-ed published last week by BIZ, a business magazine covering northwest Louisiana.

The change of life and routines have disappointed everyone, including those who believe the crisis is real and aren’t comfortable staring into that distant mirror that reflects what happens when disease runs unchecked through a population. Equally frustrated are people who believe the government’s response to COVID-19 has been exaggerated to the point that their paychecks and children’s futures have been endangered.

On the grassroots level, the governor isn’t the only target.

One group last week issued a petition to recall House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, a Republican from Gonzales. When the Republicans met prior to issuing the special session call, the speaker reportedly was scolded by a couple of representatives for not doing enough to get those 53 signatures.

He issued a statement Monday saying a significant number of House members believe the governor's rules to combat the virus represent an imbalance of power. “This special session will not end without a solution to this problem.”

Louisiana is not alone.

In Michigan, people showed up at the capitol with guns. North Carolina, Ohio, even California, have seen protester-based efforts to curb gubernatorial pandemic powers.

One issue Louisiana’s COVID-19 emergency exposed isn’t health related but goes to the handling of more than a billion federal dollars that flowed into the state coffers to mitigate the pandemic-caused economic shutdown. Nobody criticizes the efficiency in which the Edwards administration checked off the necessary boxes the federal government requires and quickly got the bucks out to the people who needed them.

Constitutionally, the Legislature is supposed to decide how money is spent in Louisiana.

Those suddenly and unexpectedly unemployed probably don’t have the patience for a proper sorting out of budgetary philosophies.

Now might be a good time to have that discussion, said Robert Scott, head of the Public Affairs Research Council, called PAR.

“I hope that when they sit down that a full discussion is taken up. What we saw in the earlier sessions was an urgency and immediacy that didn’t include a full cast of people who have good information,” Scott said. “In this session, we want to take the game up a little.”

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.