Louisiana lawmakers will return to Baton Rouge next week for a month-long special session to deal with the fallout from Hurricane Laura, a financial problem with the state’s unemployment trust fund and a flap with Gov. John Bel Edwards over his responses to the coronavirus.
The Democrat governor played no role in calling the special session, and he wasn’t allowed to offer any input on what the Republican-controlled Legislature would entertain beginning Monday at 6 p.m. Instead, this is show will be directed by Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder. Their sidelining of Edwards was a sign the governor’s grip on the state is slipping big-time. It also was a sign that Cortez and Schexnayder are feeling the heat from lawmakers who are a bit peeved over Edwards’ emergency orders to keep Louisiana largely locked down as the coronavirus continues to get significant play in the press because it generates viewers and readers.
Shoring up the state’s unemployment trust fund, which has plummeted from some $700 million to roughly $100 million, is a headache lawmakers can’t put off until the regular session next year. Simply put, the fund is going broke, and it’s going broke because unemployment claims skyrocketed shortly after the coronavirus became a thing in March and Edwards shut down the state’s economy in response to it. Tens of thousands of Louisianians remain out of work though businesses throughout the state have job openings they need to fill. Some people, unfortunately, would rather collect an unemployment check than go to work to earn an honest day’s pay.
State law requires the Legislature to pump money into the unemployment trust fund when it reaches a certain level, and lawmakers have the authority to levy a surtax on unemployment taxes paid by Louisiana businesses to shore it up. No business in Louisiana can afford to pay an additional tax at this time, and that means the Legislature must get creative to find a way out of this mess, or locate money somewhere else to ensure unemployment claims continue to be paid. It’s a tall order.
Though the so-called mainstream media paid lip service to the carnage Hurricane Laura left in its wake, residents and businesses in the greater Lake Charles area and beyond will be busy for months — if not years — rebuilding their communities. Laura did far more damage to southwest Louisiana than Hurricane Rita in 2005, which at the time was considered one of the worst hurricanes to ever strike that region of the state.
Lawmakers most likely will sign off on suspending sales taxes on building materials in FEMA-designated disaster areas, and businesses in those disaster areas will get a break on sales taxes on utilities. There will be other incentives on the table as well, including rolling back severance taxes on timber and oil and gas. All of it will help, but the real primer will come courtesy of the Congress, which means the state’s congressional delegation has its work cut out for it. It’s not easy getting anything done in Washington these days in light of the political environment there.
Yet, the big story of the special session will center on the Legislature’s battle with Edwards over his ever-evolving emergency orders to cope with the coronavirus. Though the number of people who have tested positive for the virus or died from it continues to wane, Edwards insists the state and its economy remain at least somewhat locked down until the foreseeable future. It’s as if he refuses to acknowledge that scores of Louisiana businesses are hanging on by a thread financially, and his heavy handedness in restricting bars and restaurants would make Joseph Stalin proud.
How Edwards combats unrest among lawmakers over the coronavirus craze will confirm or dispel the notion that the governor has become a mere placeholder until a new governor takes office in 2024.
The words “lame duck” come to mind. Or maybe they don’t.
Sam Hanna is publisher of the Ouachita Citizen.