Maybe it explains a lot about Louisiana that the last major institution to grasp the seriousness of social distancing was its Legislature.
For legislators, and especially for the newly elected leaders of House and Senate, the coronavirus pandemic came at a bad time. The new members, including a larger number first-timers because of the impact of term-limits on the 2019 election, were eager to get on with their tasks.
A virus outbreak had other plans.
Upstairs at the State Capitol, Gov. John Bel Edwards grasped the issues and concerns.
Downstairs, House and Senate dithered.
Various scenarios were kicked around, all focused on staying in session.
The plans included requiring a temperature check for admission to the State Capitol, spacing people apart in hearing rooms, whatever “social distancing” would allow the legislative show to go on.
There’s a time limit in the Louisiana Constitution on sessions, it was argued; but that’s not until June. A few weeks away from the seat of power might doom some bills, without committee meetings to hear them.
All these frets continued, long past the time that the leadership, if not the rank-and-file members, should have grasped the obvious: If Louisiana’s families and businesses had to be disrupted to reduce gatherings that would spread the virus, the throngs downtown centered on the Legislature needed to go home too.
Members eager to convene are also parents and grandparents, so pressure from the home front mattered. The governor used his emergency powers to the fullest, closing public schools. Chairman So-and-so is needed to help with the kids, rather than mulling such scheduled, and less than riveting, issues as management of the waste tire program.
The two-week suspension that ultimately emerged may well go longer, although we hope and pray that the impact of the virus so deeply felt already in metropolitan New Orleans will be diminished there and elsewhere by social distance.
And the Legislature will have to come back at some point.
There are some must-pass pieces of legislation, not only the “money” bills like the budget but a few others. Some of those are not controversial, such as the constitutionally required “reauthorization” of the Department of Natural Resources.
These can be passed in a matter of days; while Edwards is a Democrat and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, of Gonzales, and Senate President Page Cortez, of Lafayette, are Republicans, they seem to have a good working relationship. Needed bills will be signed upstairs.
Even missing the budget deadlines is not necessarily the end of the world, as some sort of stopgap measures continuing current levels of spending can be passed quickly. In a later special session, adjustments can be made.
A certain lack of flexibility is one of the differences between a legislative body and a governor, especially compared to Edwards’ swift and drastic executive actions. But the Legislature did the right thing to suspend, and leaders should allow the real-world events to dictate when they come back.