Louisiana legislature meets briefly before suspending session again

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

The Louisiana Legislature convened for about an hour Tuesday before suspending their session once again because of coronavirus concerns.

Their brief meeting followed news that one of their own, state Rep. Ted James, was hospitalized with pneumonia and COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

James, a Baton Rouge Democrat and attorney who chairs the House criminal justice committee, is 37 years old.

“I hope my constituents and the people of Louisiana look at my experience and understand that this virus does not know age, race, health, or socioeconomic status,” James said in a prepared statement.

The regular session opened March 9 and was first suspended March 16. It will end June 1, though a special session could be held immediately afterward. Spending bills must be approved before the fiscal year begins July 1.

This year’s scheduled session is non-fiscal, meaning most tax matters are off the table, though a special session could have a broader scope. Either the governor or a majority of legislators can call a special session.

Tuesday was the last day to introduce bills for the regular session. Attendance was light, and lawmakers gave each other extra space. After reading in the last batch of proposed legislation, lawmakers adjourned without setting a return date.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez agreed to “keep it open-ended until we see a clear path to come back,” Schexnayder said. “That will give us the flexibility to determine the best time to be here.”

Almost two dozen bills mentioning coronavirus or COVID-19 have been filed. James has filed two resolutions urging temporary suspension of utility disconnections and certain legal deadlines. Other measures would suspend standardized testing in schools, require health insurers to cover COVID-19, or exempt federal relief payments from seizure by a debtor.

A Senate proposal would temporarily ban professional licensing boards from taking disciplinary actions against a licensee who fails to pay a fee or file a document on time, while a House resolution would suspend severance taxes on oil and natural gas.

On Monday, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that he would extend the state’s “stay at home” order until April 30 to match the White House’s recommendation. The current order expires April 13.

The order keeps schools and businesses deemed nonessential closed, while limiting restaurants to takeout only and banning gatherings larger than 10 people.