Louisiana legislators want ‘a seat at the table’ when it comes to COVID-19 response

The Legislature’s session opened Monday evening

Clay Schexnayder
Louisiana House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, speaks on behalf of Republican leadership in September.

The Louisiana Legislature is looking for more of a say over the state’s emergency response as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on into its seventh month. Lawmakers returned to the state Capitol in Baton Rouge Monday evening (Sept. 28) for a special legislative session they organized without any input from Gov. John Bel Edwards. 

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said the session had been called to address a number of issues, including Hurricane Laura recovery and unemployment benefits funding. But the focus of several bills filed by lawmakers is either to loosen COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the governor or to curb the governor’s power during emergencies like the current pandemic.

Edwards has sweeping authority to impose restrictions on businesses, schools, houses of worship, hospitals and even private social gatherings under an emergency order put in place in March to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak.

The governor has done everything from shutter bars to suspend tax laws in recent months using power bestowed on him by the health emergency. Lawmakers are increasingly irritated that they don’t have any say over what actions are taken.

“We need to understand why some of these things are done,” said Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, R-Houma, the deputy in the House’s leadership structure. 

The Legislature is overwhelmingly Republican and Edwards is a Democrat — so the two branches of government clash often. But Cortez said the current efforts to shift some of the state’s emergency authority from the governor to lawmakers isn’t about partisan politics.

The governor is given broad authority during state emergencies because they are typically short-lived events, like a hurricane or flooding. The writers of the Louisiana constitution didn’t anticipate that the governor would get that type of control for months on end because of a pandemic, Cortez said. 

“This is not about this governor. This is about the public policy of this state,” Cortez said at a press conference Monday. “The Legislature is a co-equal branch of government, and I think there’s a large segment of the Legislature that wants to at least have a seat at the table.” 

To that end, Cortez and Schexnayder are proposing separate pieces of legislation that would create committees of lawmakers who the governor would have to inform about restrictions once an emergency plan had been in place for at least 30 days. Cortez’s proposal would also include the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court on the committee. 

Cortez says he will also push for a higher bar for the Legislature’s petition process which can result in the governor’s emergency order — and his powers — being thrown completely out. Currently, either the House or the Senate can strike down an emergency order through a petition. Cortez wants a petition to require the approval of both the House and the Senate. 

Several other Republican lawmakers have filed their own bills to curb the governor’s authority during emergencies. They include a proposal that would require a council — including the governor, House speaker, Senate president, attorney general and state treasurer — to make decisions about emergency matters after 30 days. There are other measures that would require a majority of House and Senate members to approve emergency restrictions. 

Even though the Legislature is controlled by Republicans, it will still be difficult to strip the governor of any of his authority without his consent. The GOP only has 68 votes in the House. It needs 70 votes to override Edwards’ veto or to approve a constitutional amendment for the ballot that the governor can’t stop. The Republicans would either have to get one of two independents or a Democrat to cross and vote with them.

But the Republicans also have some leverage over the governor. They would only need 53 House members’ signatures on a petition to completely throw out his executive order. Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, has been circulating such a document for months.

Some GOP representatives have been reluctant to sign that type of petition because there’s consensus it might jeopardize some of the state’s federal funding. But they also want more control over the COVID-19 plan as the pandemic continues.

“I don’t get a say in the decision-making right now,” said Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, who hasn’t been willing to sign the petition, but proposed more than one bill to curb the governor’s powers in this special session. “I have no voice in that room right now.”