State Sen. Jay Luneau was a bit irritated after Republicans summarily shot down his suggested alternatives to tort reform during this first week of the renewed session.
The Louisiana Legislature returned May 4 after recessing for 49 days to comply with the “stay at home” directive to reduce the community spread of coronavirus.
Looking at the GOP-heavy committee roster, Luneau, of Alexandria, said he knew he’d probably lose. But it was such a sure thing that during testimony, Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon dismissed Luneau with a seemingly impulsive wave of the hand.
Luneau, of Alexandria, wanted to forbid insurance companies from including credit scores, gender and marital status — the so-called “widow’s penalty” — in the algorithms that set rates for individual customers. Donelon countered that insurance policies are priced, basically, on costs plus profits divided by customers ranked by risk assessments. Statistics show people with lower credit scores have more wrecks, he said. So, removing that from the formula would only transfer the price now being paid by drivers with low credit scores to people with higher scores.
Leadership started the session saying one-third of the roughly 1,400 bills filed would be put aside. Rather than getting bogged down in partisan bickering, legislators could throw themselves into addressing the pandemic and its effects on the state’s economy, including to how to make up a $500 million revenue shortage, at least, in the state budget — all by the end of the May when the session adjourns.
Louisiana’s tax and fee collections dropped $494 million – 42.7% – in April when compared to the same month last year.
“It’s nonsensical for us to do things like this (tort reform bills). We should be all in on COVID-19,” Luneau said after the hearing. Tort reform supporters “will have the same number of votes next year as they have now. … But they’ve made up their mind and they’re not going to back off.”
Luneau is just one of the 47 Democrats voicing disappointment that the majority’s "pull together" rhetoric was jettisoned so early. Legislators of all political stripes were going to be at the table, promised House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzalez, because “this virus affects everybody.” Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, nodded assent.
However noble the “constructive challenge” technique for decision making may be in theory, truth is the “because we can” method is far easier.
The 68 Republicans in the House are just two votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override vetoes, suspend the rules and pretty much do whatever they want. The Senate has 27 Republicans, which is more than needed for a supermajority.
This goes beyond House Concurrent Resolution 58 to strip Gov. John Bel Edwards of power to enforce directives aimed at mitigating the community spread of the coronavirus. HCR58 advanced to the House floor on party-line vote (though one Republican representing a hot spot refused to along with his colleagues).
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Another committee heard that revenues had fallen so low that teachers wouldn’t get the pay raises promised in March, nor would the state’s financially strapped public universities receive their first real boost in state money in the 12 years since all the living governors but one came to the State Capitol to plead in vain with then-Gov. Bobby Jindal not to whack appropriations for higher education.
Meanwhile, across the hall, another committee agreed to lower severance taxes, basically allowing oil and gas companies to keep about $150 million they otherwise would have paid Louisiana over the next five years. True, the energy sector is suffering from low prices brought on by a trade war between Saudi Arabia and Russia coupled with a drop in demand as drivers stay at home during the pandemic. Six of Fortune 500’s largest 10 companies in the world, by revenues and profits, are oil companies.
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Then legislation that would require larger employers to provide paid sick leave — 41% of Louisiana workers don’t get paid when they take off because of illness — was rejected on a 10-5 party-line committee vote. Moments before Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, opined that local government, not the state, should handle such an issue. The Legislature passed a law in 2012 specifically forbidding municipalities and parishes from enacting their own sick leave policies. At the time she was a legislative aide to Rep. Henry Burns, who voted for the new law.
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The Louisiana Budget Project summed up the first week in a tweet: “The Legislature's response to the coronavirus pandemic so far: advanced bills that would give a $150 million tax break for oil industry, a $206 million budget cut for everyone else, make it harder to collect unemployment benefits and deny access to paid sick days.”
Rookie New Orleans Democratic Rep. Mandie Landry replied: “‘Callous disregard’ is sadly the phrase that best applies to this week.”