By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The new year will bring a rerun of several political debates in Louisiana, while also adding the once-a-decade battle over redistricting and an expected uptick in heated rhetoric as officials ready for the next statewide election cycle.
Debates over how issues of race can be taught in schools, how to replace the state’s voting system and how to spend an influx of federal and state cash are expected to return to the halls of the Louisiana Capitol.
Lawmakers will hold a special session to redraw the state’s political maps and plan a deep dive in the regular session about insurance problems that keep arising as people try to recover from the 2020 and 2021 hurricanes. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republicans will resume fights over the response to the coronavirus outbreak.
And the debates will be heavily influenced by political ambitions as statewide elected officials and lawmakers begin to jockey for reelection bids or new jobs. The 2023 statewide elections, with an open governor’s seat, could represent a significant reshuffling of state government’s top positions.
Here are some issues to watch in 2022 at the Louisiana Capitol:
—Before they gather for their wide-ranging regular session, lawmakers will meet in a February special session to redesign the maps for seats in the U.S. House, state Senate, state House, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Public Service Commission and possibly the Louisiana Supreme Court. The redistricting work is required every 10 years with the release of new U.S. Census data to account for population shifts.
—During the regular session that starts in March, some Republicans plan to renew an effort to put parameters on classroom discussions about race in America. They’re trying to ban the teaching of anything considered “critical race theory,” an examination of the ways in which race and racism have influenced politics, culture, government systems and laws. The effort fizzled out last year in the House after causing a significant rift between Black lawmakers and the GOP lawmakers that pushed the legislation.
—Clashes will continue between conservative Republicans and Edwards over how to deal with the COVID-19 illness as the omicron variant causes another surge of the outbreak. Vaccine mandates and mask-wearing will be in the crosshairs. Lawmakers also might try to strike at Edwards’ decision to add the coronavirus vaccine to the list of vaccines required to attend school. While Louisiana gives parents and students broad exemptions to the immunization requirement, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers sought to block Edwards’ plan anyway, and Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry is suing the governor over the decision.
—Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin will try again to update Louisiana’s voting system, but this time the work will be guided by a new commission that will help choose the technology. Whatever voting system is chosen will have to produce an auditable paper record, unlike the decades-old machines the state currently uses.
—Lawmakers in their regular legislative session will decide how to use $1.4 billion in unspent federal pandemic aid, along with a $699 million state surplus. Ideas include steering money to water and sewer system improvements, transportation projects, broadband internet upgrades and the state’s dwindling unemployment trust fund. A portion of the surplus must go to the state’s “rainy day” fund and to pay down retirement debts.
—Several legislators, Republican and Democrat, said they want to rewrite Louisiana’s insurance laws in the regular session. They’re trying to address repeated complaints about slow responses to damage claims, low payment offers and other problems surfacing as people whose homes were wrecked by Hurricanes Laura, Delta, Zeta and Ida try to negotiate with their insurers for payments.
Meanwhile, many officials already will have their eyes on the 2023 elections.
Edwards is term-limited and can’t run again. The open governor’s seat is drawing interest from Landry, Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, Republican Treasurer John Schroder and several lawmakers, at a minimum. Any statewide elected official who chooses to run for governor will then leave other jobs vacant, and several term-limited lawmakers are eagerly weighing whether they’ll try to make a bid for those seats.
That will influence the political debates as officials seek to raise their profiles, lock in their bases of support and position themselves for the next elections.