BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — In a House and Senate filled with fresh faces, Louisiana opened its three-month legislative session Monday with uncertainty about how the chambers’ more conservative bent will change lawmaking and how the new coronavirus risk will impact the state.
Louisiana announced its first positive test for the virus as the session began.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards entered the first session of his second term on unclear footing, unsure how his priorities will fare in a majority-Republican Legislature with new leaders who pledge to work with the governor but whose early budget approach appears at odds with his plans.
Edwards pledged to a joint session of the House and Senate “that I am ready to work with all of you, in good faith, to set aside partisan division and continue to move Louisiana forward.”
Before he outlined his legislative priorities, Edwards acknowledged the coronavirus threat that had lawmakers shaking hands instead of hugging, sharing hand sanitizer and wiping down desks with disinfectant on the session’s opening day.
One person in Louisiana has tested positive for COVID-19, the governor announced Monday, a Jefferson Parish resident who is hospitalized in New Orleans. Edwards encouraged anyone who is sick to speak with a health provider and avoid going out in public.
“As legislators, one of the most important things you can do to help is to share accurate information with your constituents about the current threat in Louisiana, which remains low, and the proper ways to avoid spreading illness,” the governor said.
As he spoke, Edwards looked out on dozens of new legislators, members elected this fall after term limits kept many longtime lawmakers from reelection bids. Forty-three of the House’s 105 members are new. More than half of the 39 senators are new to the chamber, though many are moving over from House seats.
More significantly, Edwards will be negotiating with different legislative leaders.
The governor’s most important Republican ally, John Alario, is gone from the Senate president’s job. But one of Edwards’ chief GOP opponents, Taylor Barras, also exited from the House speaker’s seat. They were forced out by term limits.
Replacing the men are Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, both Republicans. They’ve struck a conciliatory tone toward Edwards.
“This new Legislature brings a fresh perspective to Baton Rouge. We hope the governor makes good on his promise to work with us to deliver results for Louisiana families,” Senate GOP leader Sharon Hewitt, of Slidell, said in a statement.
As always, finances will be front and center — but rather than struggling with cuts, lawmakers will be deciding how to budget new cash coming into the treasury, stemming from a tax deal brokered in 2018.
“The surplus is certainly going to be a hot topic. The budget is always a hot topic,” said Cortez, of Lafayette.
Before they can settle on spending plans, however, Louisiana’s leaders have to settle on an income forecast.
Earlier this year, Cortez and Schexnayder blocked revenue projections sought by Edwards and recommended by nonpartisan economists, saying they thought they were too high. Another income forecasting meeting is expected in early April.
Lawmakers and Edwards are warily watching the global economic ripples caused by the coronavirus, including a deep dive in oil prices that threatens to lower Louisiana’s tax collections tied to the industry.
The governor submitted a budget proposal for the 2020-21 financial year that would raise spending across education — from early learning programs to public colleges — based on the income forecast that wasn’t adopted.
“I know that it’s going to take some time to fully recover from years of budget cuts and stagnant funding in education. But we need to demonstrate to students, parents and educators that we are serious when we say we aren’t going back,” Edwards said.
House Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, a Houma Republican, filed a budget bill that stripped out the $103 million involved in the dispute between Edwards and the legislative leaders, taking the dollars out of health programs. His proposal keeps the increased education spending.
Beyond finances, lawmakers will consider whether to legalize recreational marijuana, allow sports betting and ban capital punishment. They’ll debate whether to keep transgender students from playing sports aligned with their gender identities and whether to allow college athletes to receive compensation. Edwards again will try his long shot bids to raise Louisiana’s minimum wage and to enact new laws aimed at shrinking the pay gap between men and women.
Republicans’ main priority involves a business-backed rewrite of Louisiana’s civil litigation laws aimed at lessening lawsuits and damage claims against industry, with a special focus on the damages awarded in car accident lawsuits.
The session must end by June 1.
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