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Louisiana Legislature calls special session for COVID-19 orders, Hurricane Laura damage

Andrew Capps
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Louisiana's Legislature will start a special session next week in response to damage from Hurricane Laura and mounting pressure from Republicans to undo Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' COVID-19 emergency orders.

Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder of Gonzales and Republican Senate President Page Cortez of Lafayette announced Monday the special session will start next week. It will be the Legislature's second special session this year after a prior special session in June immediately after the regular session ended.

"No one could have predicted or planned for the health, economic and natural disaster devastation that 2020 has brought to our state and citizens," Schexnayder said in written statement.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, right, speaks about the legislative session with Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, left, on Monday, June 1, 2020, in Baton Rouge.

The three issues defined for the special session are responding to the damage from Hurricane Laura, resolving issues related to COVID-19 and the economy, and addressing the state's dwindling unemployment trust fund.

COVID-19:Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards pauses reopening as coronavirus spike intensifies

The devastation from Hurricane Laura, which made landfall as a Category 4 near Cameron on Aug. 27, displaced thousands of Louisiana residents and left thousands without electricity, including some areas still waiting for power. Tropical Storm Beta threatens to bring flooding rains and surge to southwest Louisiana this week.

More:'Everybody's just watching': Tropical Storm Beta makes Hurricane Laura survivors nervous

The special session also comes after state Republican leaders have frequently butted heads with Edwards over the governor's COVID-19 emergency orders that have placed restrictions on businesses and mandated public mask use.

Schexnayder pointed to the "survival of our economy and the opening up of business" in announcing the special session, saying the one-month session will not end without a "solution" to concerns about how the state's economy has been affected by COVID-19 orders.

"A significant number of House members have also asked to address the continued proclamations issued by the Governor during the pandemic and what many see as an imbalance of power," he said. 

During the state's first special legislative session in June, Republican Rep. Alan Seabaugh of Shreveport circulated a petition to undo the governor's executive orders, which failed to get the majority support it needed in the House.

In a Feb. 7, 2020 file photo, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor's chief budget adviser, left; House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, center; and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, speak ahead of a meeting of Louisiana's income forecasting panel in Baton Rouge. Louisiana's income forecasting panel planned to quantify on Monday, May 11, 2020 just how deeply the coronavirus outbreak has hurt the state's economy as officials begin to put together next year's budget.

The state's top lawmakers also have clashed with Edwards over his emergency orders restricting activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Schexnayder and Cortez criticizing Edwards' decision to extend the state's initial lock down in May.

On Friday, Edwards loosened some restrictions after complaints from restaurant and bar owners, allowing on-premises alcohol sales for an additional hour until 11 p.m. during the Phase 3 reopening restrictions. But Edwards' order limits bars and restaurants from opening to those in parishes that have experienced less than 5% positivity rate of COVID-19 cases for two weeks.

More:Louisiana Phase 3 reopening: Here are specifics on how businesses, residents are affected

The special session is also set to address an expected shortfall in the state's unemployment benefit trust fund, which began the COVID-19 pandemic with an all-time high of more than $1 billion in reserve funds but has dwindled in the six months since the pandemic began.

Just a month ago, the fund was down to $210 million after thousands of Louisianans filed unemployment claims throughout the course of the pandemic as the virus’ economic impact led to widespread layoffs and furloughs.

The fund’s dramatic decline from record financial health to just 20% of its previous worth “could result in financial turmoil for business owners and program beneficiaries,” Cortez said in a Monday statement. 

“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,” he said.

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