By MELINDA DESLATTE | Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Talk about a rough introduction to the Louisiana Legislature.
Louisiana’s freshman class of new lawmakers, who took office in January, got little of the glad-handing, party-hopping slow start that traditionally kicks off a regular legislative session. Instead, Gov. John Bel Edwards notified the House and Senate on the opening day of the session in March that Louisiana had its first positive test for the coronavirus.
The next few months involved temporary adjournment, the scrapping of bills lawmakers expected to debate and a switch from financial security to the reemergence of state budget woes — all stemming from the COVID-19 disease pandemic.
In the House, lawmakers were quickly mourning one of their own, Rep. Reggie Bagala, a new lawmaker from Lafourche Parish who died in the early days of Louisiana’s COVID-19 outbreak.
When lawmakers returned to session in early May, social events were replaced with temperature checks to enter the Louisiana Capitol and fear of close proximity. Rather than ease into lawmaking with early weeks of short debate calendars, lawmakers faced a breakneck pace to pass bills and jam-packed debate schedules. A 30-day June special session followed immediately after the regular session ended.
Dozens of new lawmakers didn’t get a good idea of what a legislative session looks like — or the traditional ways a bill becomes a law.
“I had that discussion with some of the guys from southwest Louisiana. I told them there usually is more debate, there are more contentious bills, there’s more input in the process than what we had this session,” Rep. Stephen Dwight, a Lake Charles Republican, said after the regular session ended. “This is not how it usually goes.”
The Legislature is packed with new faces, as term limits kept many lawmakers from seeking reelection last year. The House began in January with 45 new members out of 105, though two are former senators. The Senate seated 20 new members out of 39, nine of them without prior state legislative experience.
More than one-third of the Legislature was brand new to both the House and the Senate.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, returning lawmakers said new members didn’t have a chance to build relationships or learn the legislative process.
On one of the final days of the special session, Rep. Chuck Owen, a freshman Republican legislator from Leesville, remarked during a committee debate: “We as a group have to get to know each other because we’ve barely had time to do that.”
Much of the negotiating on bills in Louisiana’s Legislature often takes place behind the scenes, at lobbyist-sponsored parties, committee dinners, delegation strategy sessions and gatherings at the legislative Pentagon Barracks apartments across the street from the Capitol.
“There’s a lot of new freshmen here that we’re usually having breakfast with or going to lunch with or having committee dinners with that we just weren’t able to do. There’s still people in here that I don’t know what they do for a living, what their background is,” Dwight said.
Rep. Gary Carter, a New Orleans Democrat in his second term, agreed it was more difficult for lawmakers to introduce themselves and spend time learning about each other.
“At night, that’s when we gather and we have dinners and we talk. That’s what’s missing,” Carter said during the special session. “How do you form relationships when you’re socially distanced?”
As the sessions’ weeks wore on, lawmakers started returning to pre-pandemic behavior despite the risks.
Fewer lawmakers wore masks. More conversations were held in whispered huddles. Parties returned at the Pentagon Barracks. A few committee dinners were announced. Senate President Page Cortez even held a shrimp boil for senators. Plus, lawmakers simply spent more time with each other in committee debates and on the House and Senate floors. But the activity never reached the levels of a normal session.
“I think it’s getting better the longer we’re spending time together,” Carter said.
Still, many of the freshman lawmakers simply have no idea what the Louisiana Capitol looks like without the fear surrounding a virus outbreak.
They saw few of the people who usually pack budget hearings and controversial committee debates. They don’t know what it’s like when the House and Senate galleries are packed with schoolchildren and lobbyists line the back of both chambers. They haven’t seen the building at the height of a session open to the general public.
Maybe next year.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte