Amid tension, Louisiana Legislature resumes pandemic-shortened session

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

The Louisiana Legislature met Monday for the first time since time since March 31, resuming a regular annual session that has been suspended twice over COVID-19 concerns.

“We have work to do, and we can’t wait any longer,” said state House of Representatives Speaker Clay Schexnayder. “This is what we were elected to do.”

The regular session must end June 1. Many lawmakers expect a special session will be held immediately afterward. According to the Louisiana constitution, spending bills must be approved before the state’s fiscal year begins July 1.

As the House began its work Monday morning, 78 of its 105 members were in attendance. At least one member, Democratic Rep. Ted James, has said he doesn’t plan to attend in the near future. James recovered from a difficult bout with COVID-19; one member, Rep. Reggie Bagala, already has been killed by the illness.

The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus has urged leadership not to convene until Gov. John Bel Edwards’ current “stay at home” order expires May 15. Edwards and legislative leaders say their work is “essential” under the terms of the order.

While many members were wearing masks in the House chamber Monday, many others were not. Everyone’s temperature was checked on the way into the building, and observers were prevented from sitting next to each other.

Rep. Mandie Landry, a New Orleans Democrat, said on social media that all the Democrats she spotted were wearing masks, while about half of Republicans were not. She said several members over the weekend attended a protest against the “stay at home” order, where no one appeared to be practicing social distancing or wearing a mask.

Landry said she was particularly worried about her older colleagues as well as legislative staff.

“We don’t need to be in session Monday,” she said. “We’ve already lost one member.”

Rep. Rodney Lyons, a Harvey Democrat who also has recovered from COVID-19, urged his colleagues to wear masks. Public health experts say people can protect each other by wearing a mask to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus.

“Out of respect for other members who are here, put your mask on,” Lyons said. “You want to respect someone else’s space.”

Rep. Blake Miguez, who leads the House Republican caucus and was not wearing a mask for at least part of Monday’s House session, has filed a resolution that would suspend the governor’s authority to declare a public health emergency. The measure is scheduled for a committee debate Wednesday.

Miguez has spoken out against Edwards’ decision to extend the statewide stay-at-home order, which closes some businesses and places restrictions on many others. Many critics say the administration at least should seriously consider a parish-by-parish or regional approach.

The Edwards administration says the state still doesn’t meet the criteria to enter phase one of the White House-approved reopening process and warns that revoking the emergency declaration could jeopardize federal disaster funding.