The Louisiana Legislature returns to work this week in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic — drawing 143 members from across the 64 parishes to mix and mingle and spread microscopic germs that may not even know they are carrying.
In calling his chamber back to Baton Rouge, Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said, “We are essential to government operations. We are just as essential as grocery stores and the Home Depots and Lowe's of the world."
So, in one of his first acts as leader of the Senate, Cortez has insulted thousands of workers at the grocery store and the Home Depot and the Lowe’s by comparing them to politicians. These workers don’t get the adoration of doctors and nurses, but they are vital to the economy and they are on the front lines, in contact with hundreds of customers every day.
Legislators seem to be returning to Baton Rouge to demonstrate their fealty with constituents frustrated by the economic shutdown and Gov. John Bel Edwards’ order extending it until mid-May.
They will need to pass a budget, but it won’t be possible to do that responsibly, with the revenue picture so uncertain. So the chief order of business seems to be the half-baked idea that the Legislature should overturn the stay-at-home order extension.
As some GOP legislators are pointing out, along with Edwards' staff, repealing an emergency declaration is legal but unwise. Hundreds of millions in federal aid for the crisis is working through the system, and the legal basis for taking the money is the emergency.
But if some legislators want to make a show by thumbing their nose at the governor, they should at least try to do it safely.
One way would be to meet in a larger venue, where there is more space for social distancing, maybe a Baton Rouge convention center or theater.
Article 3, Section 2 of the constitution says “The legislature shall meet annually in regular session for a limited number of legislative days in the state capital.” That’s capital, the city, not capitol, the building.
There is precedent for meeting away from the State Capitol. Gov. Kathleen Blanco convened the Legislature in New Orleans and spoke to them about her plans to bring the city back after Hurricane Katrina.
The ideas for social distancing aren't bad, such as plexiglass barriers, limits on committee meetings, fewer paper documents — but moving to a larger space would allow legislators to stay more than stay six feet apart.
Let’s use this opportunity to be a national legislative leader, as we protect the health of our legislators and the people who work with them and serve us.
The members of the new Legislature that was supposed to be meeting right now should get some sympathy, too, during this trying epidemic episode.