Last week, a few notable, and hopefully inspiring, things happened.
First, we finally marked the official halfway point of 2020, a year that has been one of the most contentious and challenging many of us have ever seen in our lifetimes. Second, we celebrated our nation’s 244th birthday, reminding ourselves there is no better country to confront, tackle and hopefully solve these challenging issues than the good ole’ USA. Lastly, lying quietly underneath the all-encompassing umbrella of the combative national discourse dominating the internet and airwaves was the end of a hybrid regular-and-special legislative session that found bipartisan solutions to tackle a range of thorny issues confronting Louisiana such as the pandemic response, legal reform, tax relief and spending reform.
The 2020 legislative accomplishments quite frankly are tremendous, especially considering the challenges lawmakers faced. Of the 144 lawmakers at the State Capitol, 52 were faced with their first session ever. The leadership teams in both chambers were brand new, as well as committee chairs. The COVID-19 pandemic forced them to take a prolonged recess, and during that time, they tragically lost a colleague to the virus, freshman Rep. Reggie Bagala of Lockport. The Coronavirus also forced the Legislature to take a host of precautions and scheduling modifications in order to do the people’s business in a safe and efficient way. The shutdown of the economy and schools raised unemployment levels to record heights, threatened numerous businesses, strained working families and lowered government revenues. Questions were everywhere and answers were hard to find, especially for those new legislators reviewing the state’s budget and fiscal documents for the very first time.
Despite these numerous headwinds and having to work in unprecedented circumstances, this Legislature was able to come together and deliver smart, reasonable and consensus-laden results. Their effort was fair, balanced and appropriate. It had a steady and unflappable work rhythm to it, especially against the backdrop of the local, state and world chaos that has thus far defined 2020.
To be fair, just like every legislative session ever held in the history of Louisiana, there are serious questions left unanswered. Federal assistance helped to mitigate some of the near-term impacts of the budget shortfall, though most know the key to avoiding future cuts down the road is to get the economy safely rolling again as quickly as possible. The restart of school is literally weeks away and there is no clear, unified plan for parents. Countless small businesses face partial government shutdowns of their markets and expiring federal grants to mitigate the damage. Intended tax relief to fill some of this gap was either sidelined or watered-down significantly. To truly avoid a second wave of layoffs and bankruptcies, another special session later in the year seems likely.
However, the record of this legislative session on legal reform is generationally significant. In fact, it has been more than 25 years since a group of lawmakers bravely tackled an issue that has obviously plagued us for so long. The culture of lawsuit abuse in Louisiana is longstanding and well-documented. Our toxic legal climate has driven costs like auto insurance rates to the second highest in the nation, chasing job-creators and workers out of Louisiana. This legislature changed that narrative and has clearly set a new tone on this critical economic issue.
The new leadership team, especially Speaker Clay Schexnayder through his bill HB 57, delivered bipartisan legislation to help reduce auto insurance rates, allow for fairer trials and bring transparency to our court system. New legislative faces like Reps. Thomas Pressley, Richard Nelson, Larry Frieman, Mike Johnson and Sens. Heather Cloud, Robert Mills, Patrick McMath and Mike Reese worked hand-in-hand with more veteran legislators like Sen. Kirk Talbot, Reps. Ray Garofalo, John Stefanski, Alan Seabaugh and Sens. Sharon Hewitt, Mark Abraham and Barrow Peacock along the way. The false narrative peddled by some that this was a partisan effort was blown away by critical votes made by folks like Sens. Cleo Fields, Ed Price, Gary Smith, Greg Tarver, Reps. Jason Hughes, Aimee Freeman, Chad Brown, Jeremy LaCombe and Ken Brass.
The bills supported by this bipartisan coalition will help provide critical liability protection for those battling the ever-changing and overlapping rules and regulations in the era of COVID-19 and also help increase competition to drive down auto insurance rates. These policy wins are substantial and desperately needed. For years, legislators have tried to resolve these issues and for years those efforts fell short. But this legislative team, filled with a strong mix of new and veteran talent, got it done and also made it clear there is a new model in the State Capitol for bold reform policies to find a home.
While the world continues to melt down in a fog of partisan rage, this new crop of legislators seems destined to methodically go about their business driven by data, accountability and the search for common sense solutions to real world problems. They don’t seem to care much about who comes up with the idea as long as it makes sense. It is a great, inspiring first step and hopefully a template that will be used to tackle additional challenging issues in the sessions to come.
And those additional issues are plenty.
A solution is still needed to lift the wet blanket of litigation draped over our oil and gas industry, a problem that must be resolved soon to save this critical industry. Tax reform that relies less on credits, exemptions and complicated collection schemes and instead is based more on flat, fair rates for everyone seems especially ripe next year and essential for long-term economic growth. Crumbling infrastructure must be addressed with regard to our roads, bridges, ports and coastline. Decades-long gains made in educational accountability and school choice must by maintained and strengthened. These issues are just as controversial as those faced this year and the same solution-oriented attitude used by this new Legislative team is the perfect way to whack these pinatas during the course of this term.
The standard is now set. The team seems to be in place. 2020 will go down as a tough year filled with many complicated issues that challenged the soul of America in countless ways. However, 2020 may also go down as the year the Legislature finally developed the new model to solve those difficult issues once viewed as unsolvable in Louisiana. If so, I can’t wait to get back to work on what’s next on the agenda.
Stephen Waguespack is president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.