Louisiana Republicans want power during health emergencies, but haven’t agreed on how much

Lawmakers file several bills to curb governor’s authority

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

The Louisiana Legislature’s Republican leadership came into their month-long special session this week in part to wrestle more control over the COVID-19 health crisis from the Democratic governor. But there isn’t consensus among them over how much of that power they actually want.

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, presented a united front Monday evening at a press conference. They said they would be proposing similar bills to give themselves “a seat at the table” when it came to the state’s pandemic restrictions, but not necessarily to override the governor’s authority.

Cortez’s version of that legislation started moving through the law-making process Tuesday. Schexnayder’s bill hasn’t been filed yet.

Instead, the House Speaker has submitted legislation not discussed at the press conference with Cortez. It’s a resolution to block Gov. John Bel Edwards from imposing COVID-19 rules until the end of November.

If it passed, a myriad of restrictions — from the personal mask mandate to limits on capacities at bars, casinos and restaurants — could be lifted for weeks. Republican lawmakers said they have been under pressure to undo a number of health emergency measures as the pandemic drags on into its seventh month.

Schexnayder’s proposal resembles several petitions that have been circulating in the House of Representatives that would also strike down Edwards’ COVID-19 restrictions. But his resolution marked the first time a member of the legislative leadership has aligned themselves so closely with those efforts.

Schexnayder told The Advocate the legislation was a negotiating point, presumably to put pressure on the governor. “It’s just a tool in our toolbox. We need to be able to work and maneuver through the session,” he said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Cortez has put forward a much gentler proposal — one that would actually make it more difficult to overturn the governor’s coronavirus order and rules.

Cortez’s bill would require a petition to overrule a governor to get support from the majority of House and Senate members. Currently, such petitions — including the ones circulating in the House — only need the support of the majority of members in just one chamber.

Under Page’s legislation, the governor also would be required to provide information about a health crisis emergency order to a 10-person legislative committee after 30 days.

Cortez said his initial draft of the bill gave that legislative committee the power to overrule the governor on pandemic restrictions, but he decided to drop that provision.

“I don’t want to dictate to the governor what goes into his emergency order,” he said.

His bill passed out of the Senate’s Judiciary B Committee Tuesday and is headed to the full chamber for a vote, but it’s unclear if it could get the support of the House. Several conservative lawmakers have filed their own bills which are much more aggressive. Most would require the Legislature or other elected officials to sign off on health pandemic restrictions imposed by the governor after a month.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Blake Miguez, from Erath, said he wouldn’t support a measure like Cortez’s that required a petition to gain majority support in both chambers because it would “almost make it impossible” to pass one. Miguez doubted that the senators would get on board with such a concept.

But Cortez implied the lack of Senate support might be part of the problem. The Senate President said he wasn’t sure a petition to overrule the governor would survive a court challenge if it was only passed by one chamber.

“I hope the House understands that there is a Senate on this side,” he said.