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Here's what to expect during Louisiana's special legislative session

Greg Hilburn
Monroe News-Star
Louisiana Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, front, and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, rear, conduct a press conference Sept. 28 to discuss the Special Session.

BATON ROUGE — Louisiana's lawmakers gathered here Tuesday for their first full work day of a month-long special session with a long wish list, but a focus of four priorities — curbing the governor's emergency powers, shoring up a drained unemployment trust fund, more coronavirus relief for businesses and Hurricane Laura recovery.

Governor's executive powers challenged

In a Legislature dominated by a near Republican super majority in the House and Senate, many GOP lawmakers believe Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' COVID-19 restrictions were too deep and have gone on for too long.

Republican Senate President Page Cortez of Lafayette and Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder of Gonzales will each sponsor bills to require the governor to consult with legislative leadership before extending an emergency declaration beyond 30 days.

"I don't believe anybody in the room contemplated an emergency declaration that would have lasted seven months," Cortez said.

But neither of the bills requires the approval of the legislative leadership because of constitutional concerns, although more teeth could be amended into them as they move forward.

Schexnayder said the bills, which basically mirror each other, address what he believes is an "imbalance of power" tilted toward the executive branch.

"We're seeking a seat at the table," Schexnayder said.

Schexnayder and Cortez hope the legislation can stave off more drastic measures preferred by the most conservative of GOP House members who are circulating petitions that would completely overturn the governor's emergency order with a majority of 53 signatures in the House.

So far those hawking the petitions like GOP state Rep. Alan Seabaugh of Shreveport have been unable to secure the needed support because of concerns it would cut off hundreds of millions in federal funding for the state, but the pressure has mounted on Republican members to sign as Edwards' COVID-19 restrictions continue. 

The governor has dismissed concerns about an imbalance of power, saying emergencies can't be managed "by committee."

Unemployment trust fund near bankruptcy

Louisiana's unemployment trust fund from which the state pays benefits to those who are jobless has fallen from more than $1 billion before the coronavirus pandemic to less than $50 million this week.

It's expected to become insolvent during the week of Oct. 5.

That will require Louisiana to secure a loan from the federal government, which will trigger higher taxes on businesses and reduced unemployment payments beginning in 2021 unless lawmakers can come up with other options.

"Businesses just can't take another burden right now," Schexnayder said.

“We could find a better solution,” Cortez said.

Options appear limited, but on this issue Edwards and the Legislature are united in seeking a solution.

Edwards announced last week he has temporarily suspended what's known as the "solvency tax" on businesses to shore up the trust fund.

Lawmakers may consider redirecting some previously allocated federal coronavirus relief funding, tapping a previous budget surplus or even borrowing the money on the state's credit line rather taking a federal loan.

But the ideal solution would be more federal help, which could come in early 2021 if state leaders can find ways to stall the solvency tax and reduction of benefits to the jobless until then.

“While we will have to work together and with our congressional delegation to address the long-term need to replenish our trust fund balance, I am confident that we can all agree that we need additional time to recover from this emergency before there should be any consideration of the solvency tax,” Edwards said in a statement.

Hurricane Laura, COVID-19 relief

Schexnayder said the issues the state is facing now, including finding more relief for Hurricane Laura victims and those whose finances were wrecked by COVID-19, dictated lawmakers calling themselves into the Special Session despite objections from Edwards and many Democratic legislators.

"These families need our help now," Schexnayder said. "It couldn't wait. Every action we take will be about one thing — the people of the state."

But without a new injection of federal funding the state's effort will be limited.

Schexnayder has filed a bill that would provide a sales tax holiday for consumers on Nov. 20-21 to provide tax relief from Hurricane Laura and the pandemic.

And lawmakers will address how to provide for schools in Lake Charles and the surrounding cites and towns that were destroyed or heavily damaged by Laura.

"Many schools won't reopen this year," Cortez said.

"Everything we do is about getting people back on their feet," Schexnayder said.

Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1.