Louisiana lawmakers call another COVID-19 special session

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers announced Monday that they will convene a special session next week to address the near-bankruptcy of the state unemployment trust fund, to work on Hurricane Laura recovery and to try to scale back the governor’s emergency powers in the latest battle over Gov. John Bel Edwards’ coronavirus response.

Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder released the broad, 70-item outline of what will be debated in the 30-day session that will begin Sept. 28 at 6 p.m.

The Republican legislative leaders gathered a majority of signatures from House and Senate members to call the session on their own. That keeps Edwards, a Democrat, from controlling the agenda.

“A special session is needed to address unforeseen problems related to the in-person education of our children and their return to extracurricular activities, the survival of our economy and the opening up of business, and the recovery of the areas of our state devastated by Hurricane Laura,” Schexnayder said.

Edwards said he’s concerned about the length and timing of the session and the public’s access amid a pandemic.

“I am hopeful that the legislative leadership will significantly narrow the scope and the duration of this session so that they can do the work they deem necessary, while at the same time working in a bipartisan and cooperative manner,” the governor said in a statement.

In their statements, Cortez and Schexnayder focused on the need to shore up an unemployment trust fund that topped $1.1 billion before the pandemic and now is nearly empty as hundreds of thousands of Louisiana residents were pushed into joblessness by the coronavirus outbreak and the restrictions that followed.

They also described needing to respond to Laura, which devastated southwest Louisiana when it roared ashore Aug. 27. Also on the list for discussion are voting plans during a disaster, adjustments to the state budget, tax breaks, K-12 school sports, COVID-19 testing, sale of state property, nursing home visitation policies and more.

“This session is about the people — the student whose education is further disrupted by disaster, the homeowner trying to rebuild, the local business struggling to keep its doors open and the worker relying on benefits to make ends meet after being laid-off,” Cortez said.

But one of the largest debates is expected to involve a push to put new limits on the Louisiana governor’s powers to declare and respond to an emergency and to expand the scope of legislative authority in such situations. That is the top item on the session agenda.

Republicans say Edwards has heavily damaged Louisiana’s economy and businesses in restrictions he’s enacted since mid-March, while the governor has said he’s trying to allow businesses to operate while also controlling an outbreak that has killed more than 5,200 people in Louisiana.

A group of conservative House Republicans has sought to revoke Edwards’ public health emergency and fully reopen businesses through a little-used petition procedure allowed in state law — but they have been unable to get a majority of lawmakers in the chamber, including Schexnayder, to sign on to the idea.

Schexnayder said “a significant number of House members” want to address “what many see as an imbalance of power.”

“This special session will not end without a solution to this problem,” he said.

Edwards defended his decision-making as in line with the White House’s coronavirus task force guidance and helping to curb the scale of the outbreak.

“To abandon these efforts in defiance of the unanimous advice of the public health experts and the Trump administration would seriously jeopardize the lives of our people and the gains we have made,” he said.

It’s unclear what sorts of limits on the governor’s emergency powers lawmakers will propose in the special session. But it’s clear the debate will be a centerpiece of the 30-day gathering.

“The legislators want a seat at the table to represent constituents on the best way to safely reopen the economy, while balancing our COVID public health response,” said Senate Republicans leader Sharon Hewitt in a statement posted to Twitter.

Until this term, lawmakers deferred to governors on when and how special sessions would be held. But Republican lawmakers have been more aggressive asserting their independence in the four-year term of office that started in January — and they’ve been clashing repeatedly with Edwards over his handling of Louisiana’s coronavirus emergency.

When they convene Sept. 28, it will be the second special session the House and Senate have held this year in response to the coronavirus outbreak.