Melinda DeSlatte: Virus heightens GOP divisions in Louisiana House

Republicans in the Louisiana House started the term divided over leadership, and the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating, rather than soothing, those divisions.

The latest fissure among GOP lawmakers in the chamber involves public sparring over whether to override Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision-making in the virus outbreak, through a petition that is provoking sharp disagreements about the scale of the health risks and the scope of the state’s response.

The clashes highlight a continuing trend in the House. As Republicans have gained more seats, they have grown more fractured among themselves, with competing groups disagreeing over the level of cooperation they should have with a Democratic governor.

The four-year term began in January with a contentious vote for House speaker, as a minority of Republicans joined with Democrats to boost GOP Rep. Clay Schexnayder, of Ascension Parish, to the chamber’s top job.

Schexnayder received the support of 22 other Republicans, while 45 GOP lawmakers — including the leader of the House Republican Delegation, Blake Miguez — chose Schexnayder’s competitor, Rep. Sherman Mack, of Livingston Parish.

The Republicans on the losing side of the vote openly questioned Schexnayder’s GOP bonafides, but the new House speaker seemed to soothe many of the concerns with his committee assignments and his legislative priorities.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, has appeared to rip apart the mending Schexnayder had done.

Schexnayder and many of those who supported his leadership bid are again at odds with many of the Republicans who supported Mack in the House speaker’s race. This time, the catalyst is a petition that could revoke Edwards’ public health emergency declaration and undo all the orders he’s enacted to combat the virus.

The petition, pushed by Shreveport Republican Rep. Alan Seabaugh, requires a majority of signatures from either House or Senate members to nullify Edwards’ statewide mask mandate, restrictions on businesses, limitations on public gatherings and other orders. Only the House seems to be actively circulating a petition.

Schexnayder is trying to keep the petition from winning enough House signatures to pass, saying in a letter to Republican House members that the revocation of the emergency would be a “grave decision with potentially dire consequences.” Seabaugh accused Schexnayder of peddling inaccurate information.

The divide between the factions has spilled out across social media.

Supporters say Edwards has overstepped his authority by issuing a statewide mask mandate and is crippling the economy with his business restrictions. Opponents of the petition effort describe damaging consequences if Louisiana becomes the only state in the nation without an emergency declaration amid a pandemic that has killed more than 3,600 Louisiana residents.

The state has one of the nation’s highest per-capita confirmed coronavirus infection rates across the country. Hospitalization numbers are surging, and the percentage of coronavirus tests returning positive for the COVID-19 disease has alarmed public health experts.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause severe or fatal illness.

Hospital leaders say removal of the emergency declaration would end needed waivers of regulations that have given health facilities more flexibility to respond to the influx of COVID-19 patients. Other opponents say overriding Edwards’ emergency orders would threaten to keep Louisiana from receiving millions in federal aid.

Schexnayder cautioned that revoking the emergency declaration could create legal headaches for businesses trying to recover from closures; trigger the overrides of ongoing executive orders tied to natural disasters; and hamper the governor’s authority to respond to tornadoes or hurricanes that strike. Schexnayder commissioned a poll and sent House members results showing widespread, bipartisan support for a mask mandate and for the state’s response to the pandemic.

Seabaugh said opponents are overstating the impact of the emergency declaration revocation and are “fear-mongering.” He said Edwards isn’t appropriately balancing the public health response with the needs of the economy.

Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry has been asked for a legal opinion about the petition’s implications. Whatever Landry decides is certain to prompt another round of back-and-forth disagreement among Republicans about what it all means and whether lawmakers should back Edwards’ virus decision-making, rather than coalesce the GOP House members around one approach.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.