By David Jacobs | The Center Square
Louisiana legislators passed a $35 billion state budget with two hours to spare on Tuesday, a stark contrast from the frenetic final moments of other recent sessions.
It was an unusual ending for an unusual session that likely will be remembered more for the constant threat of a new coronavirus than for any of the legislation that came out of it.
Lawmakers convened for their regularly scheduled session on March 9. Changing the state’s civil justice system was at the top of the agenda for many Republicans. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards hoped to continue raising K-12 teacher pay and boosting funding for higher education. And everyone wanted to invest more in early childhood learning.
All of those goals were overshadowed by the most deadly worldwide pandemic since 1918, which sent state government into survival mode. Legislators canceled most of their regular session and launched a one-month special session literally one minute after the first one ended June 1.
COVID-19 killed one representative, Reggie Bagala, threatened the lives of at least two others, Rep. Ted James and Rep. Rodney Lyons, and infected an unknown number of lawmakers and staffers.
“Rep. Bagala didn’t come back,” Lyons said Tuesday. “Several members of this body almost didn’t come back. I almost didn’t come back.”
It was only the second time the Louisiana Legislature, not the governor, called an unplanned session, as the Republican-dominated legislature continued to establish its independence in a state where historically the governor drives the agenda. The state Senate and House of Representatives worked together more closely than during the last term, forcing Edwards and his allies to play defense.
The state constitution requires passing the bills that fund government services before the fiscal year begins July 1. In crafting the $35 billion spending plan for general operations, lawmakers gave haircuts to departments across state government and held back funding for scheduled raises. But they avoided making deep cuts despite a projected revenue shortfall thanks to federal aid.
The topics lawmakers debated during the special session went far beyond their constitutionally required work. A business task force legislative leaders created to come up with economic recovery ideas drove much of the agenda. The various tax breaks and incentives they proposed were pitched as ways to help businesses recover from the pandemic, though skeptics worried the measures would chip away at state finances while doing little to help struggling companies stay afloat.
Legislators also used federal pandemic aid to set up funds to give low-to-middle-income “essential” workers $250 of “hazard pay” and grant small businesses harmed by the pandemic up to $15,000. Lawmakers acknowledged both funds may run out of money before every affected company or worker gets a share.
As protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police were held nationwide and even internationally, state lawmakers debated law enforcement reform. While there wasn’t much argument about the need to study the issue, the conversations turned heated over questions of race and whether there is a need for systemic change, as opposed to weeding out “bad apples.”
Lawmakers voted down a proposal to end “qualified immunity” for law enforcement, a judicial concept critics say enables misconduct. They approved creating a “police training, screening and de-escalation” task force only after Republicans insisted on stripping out of the resolution language referencing Floyd and the treatment of Black men.
And when Rep. Tony Bacala, a Republican and retired law enforcement officer, took to the House floor to say that officers are more likely to be killed in the line of duty than Black men are to be killed by officers, James, who is Black, gave a fiery response.
“I will concede that there is an issue with police brutality period,” James said. “Way too often, when the victim of that brutality is an African American, that officer skates.”
Perhaps the most significant policy development of the session was passage of a sweeping civil justice overhaul, which Edwards has promised to sign into law after vetoing a similar measure passed during the regular session. Among other changes, the legislation lowers the amount that must be at stake to trigger the right to a civil jury from $50,000, by far the highest such threshold in the nation, to $10,000.
Supporters say the state’s current legal system is too generous to plaintiffs and encourages frivolous lawsuits, arguing the changes could lead to cheaper automobile insurance. Skeptics doubt the promised benefits will come to fruition and worry lawmakers have tilted the system to favor insurers and big companies over average citizens.
All the while, the pandemic hung over the session. Fewer people showed up to give public testimony than in past years. Temperatures were checked on the way into the capitol. Seats in committee rooms were blocked off with yellow hazard tape to ensure distance between audience members.
During the first several weeks of the pandemic, even Republicans gave Edwards credit for controlling the spread of the disease and ensuring the state’s health care system was not overwhelmed with patients. But once the infection curve had been flattened, some House Republicans called for an immediate end to the business restrictions that handcuff the state’s economy, though those efforts did not succeed.
Several lawmakers bristled at being left out of the governor’s decision-making loop about COVID-19 restrictions, echoing complaints about what many see as the administration’s lack of transparency on other issues. Legislators of both parties objected to the health department’s request for quick approval of a major overhaul of how state government handles Medicaid payment dispersals, though they ultimately signed off on the “dollars follow the patient” plan on a one-year trial basis.
Wearing masks, which public health experts now say is one of the most effective ways to control the spread, became a partisan issue. Many of the Republicans who were most adamant about fully reopening the economy were the least likely to wear face coverings.
In his speech to colleagues Tuesday, Lyons recalled not entering his own home when he left the suspended session in March, out of fear of infecting his family with the coronavirus. Though his risk might be lower now that he has recovered from the illness, he said, he still wears a mask to set an example.
“We’ve got to think beyond ourselves,” he said. “Whatever we can do from this point on to protect ourselves and others, let’s do it.”
Though they haven’t scheduled another special session, many lawmakers expect to come back in October. If the economy has not recovered and more federal help is not forthcoming, they may be forced to make the deep cuts they avoided in June.
Shortly before Lyons spoke Tuesday, Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Rick Edmonds, a pastor by trade, tried to strike a hopeful note amid the multiple crises. He urged his colleagues to find ways to speak respectfully with one another about sensitive issues and “give each other the benefit of the doubt.”
“We will rally together, as the people of Louisiana and the people of America, and we will not throw in the towel,” he said.
David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.