Louisiana Legislature Calls Special Session Over COVID Restrictions, Unemployment

Lawmakers will return to the Capitol Monday

Louisiana Capitol Building
Photo by Julie O'Donoghue

The Louisiana Legislature has called itself into a special session to address Hurricane Laura recovery, COVID-19 policies and the rapidly-dwindling state unemployment trust fund, according to a press release sent out by its Republican leadership.

Lawmakers will convene Monday, Sept. 28, and adjourn about a month later, on Oct. 27. More than half of the legislators had to agree to the special session in order for it to be called.

The scope of the session — set by the Republican leadership in both chambers — is wide-ranging. It will allow lawmakers to change laws around everything from juvenile-offender policies and election procedures to speech-pathology rules and the state public school funding formula.

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Several of the areas of the law that the Republican leadership want to rework have to do with the relative power of the governor, lawmakers and local governments during an emergency.

GOP legislators have complained that Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has had too much control over businesses, schools and other activities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“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. This special session will not end without a resolution to this problem,” said House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, in a press release.

Other items the Republican leadership included in the special session agenda make it clear that lawmakers are interested in shifting around both state funding and federal money related to Hurricane Laura and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers are particularly concerned about the soon-to-be bankrupt unemployment trust fund. When the trust fund runs dry, it will trigger a drop in benefits for the unemployed as well as higher taxes and surcharges on businesses. Lawmakers are trying to find money in other parts of the state budget to avoid those consequences. 

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Republican lawmakers have also structured the special session agenda to allow lawmakers to address very specific complaints about COVID-19 restrictions.

They will look at changing laws around restaurant and bar fines during a health crisis. Republicans have been upset about the governor’s pandemic restrictions on bars and restaurants.

Lawmakers will also be able to adjust emergency regulations around extra-curricular activities in schools. Several people are upset about the restrictions on high school football game attendance — among other things.

Legislators will also look at nursing home visitation. Lawmakers said they have received several complaints from family members who can’t visit loved ones in the homes because of the state’s current restrictions imposed by Edwards.

Republicans have also included eviction policies, housing payment assistance and broadband access on the special session agenda. Lawmakers from rural areas continue to complain that their families are unable to access the internet to take part in virtual schooling. 

Historically, lawmakers have been very reluctant to call themselves into a special session in Louisiana. They typically leave that responsibility to the governor.

This is just the third time lawmakers have convened a special session in the history of the state — though it is the second time it has happened this year. Elected last year, the new Republican leadership wants to assert more of its authority, especially since the governor is a Democrat.

Edwards has objected to the special session — saying that lawmakers are attempting to do too much.

“At a time when our state is dealing with the COVID-19 health emergency, hurricanes, and one severe weather event after another, I am concerned that the Legislature has again called themselves into a month-long session with an agenda of 70 items. This session will occur at a time when the public will again be restricted in their access to the State Capitol and their ability to give needed public input,” he said in a written statement.