The Louisiana Legislature’s 2021 lawmaking session kicks off Monday, after a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated state policy and politics.
Some COVID-19 restrictions will still remain in the Capitol during the lawmaking session. Visitors will be required to wear masks in the building. Seating in committee rooms for votes and debate on legislation will be limited, though “overflow rooms” will be open. The observation deck in the House chamber will remain closed, leaving fewer places for members of the public to sit and watch legislative debate in person.
Because of the ongoing pandemic, the governor is also forgoing his annual address to lawmakers that typically kicks off the legislative session. Instead, John Bel Edwards will be addressing the public at 6 p.m. on Monday evening from Southern University’s stadium, where the crowd can sit farther apart from one another.
Here are some of the top issues that are expected to be debated over the two-month session:
Where should the extra money go?
After years of lean budgets, Louisiana is expected to have extra money to go around in the upcoming fiscal cycle, largely because of massive COVID-19 relief packages coming down from the federal government.
There’s some consensus among lawmakers that the extra money should be used to pay for one-time expenses, and not ongoing needs. The federal COVID-19 relief money also comes with some restrictions. Much of it, for example, is not allowed to be used to offset losses in tax revenue that may have been unusually low because of the pandemic.
Some of the one-time expenses that Louisiana’s extra cash could be used for include paying down the state’s debt, upgrading roads and bridges and expanding the state’s broadband network, especially in rural areas. Edwards also wants to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund, which was drained last year when jobless rates soared due to the pandemic.
Edwards is also pushing a modest raise for K-12 public school teachers and support staff as well as public university faculty.
A proposed tax system overhaul, again
Republican leaders in the Legislature are once again pushing a tax system overhaul — a goal that they have fallen short of meeting several times over the last six years.
Lawmakers have said they want to expand the tax base — by eliminating tax exemptions and rebates — while cutting tax rates. The aim is, in part, to help improve Louisiana’s rankings with business-friendly organizations. Republicans believe that Louisiana is having a hard time attracting jobs to the state because its business tax rates are perceived to be too high and the tax system is perceived to be too complicated.
Republicans spent much of Edwards’ first term advocating for similar ideas, with little to no success. When facing massive budget shortfalls, lawmakers decided to fall back primarily on raising the sales tax to generate revenue. They made few large-scale changes to the way the tax system works — tax breaks in particular .
But the dynamics of this session will be different than in years past. In previous years, the state was facing a large budget hole. This year, the state is not expected to have problems meeting its needs.
The Legislature will still need to contend with special interest groups who benefit from the current tax structure in place.
For example, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, has a bill to centralize tax collections at the state level. The business community complains that the current system is too cumbersome.
That’s likely to receive pushback from local government entities, such as local sheriffs, who are among the powerful elected officials in their communities and some of whom currently have control over tax collection.
Edwards said he is only willing to support a tax system overhaul that is “revenue neutral” — meaning one that doesn’t lower the overall amount of tax revenue coming into the state’s coffers.
Response to sexual misconduct scandal at LSU
A few lawmakers have filed bills aimed at preventing another higher education sexual misconduct and domestic violence scandal, such as the one that has exploded at LSU over the past few months.
Among the proposals is a bill from Rep. Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans, that would require staff at local universities to report incidents of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and other misconduct to the school’s Title IX coordinator, which handles such issues. If someone fails to report such misconduct, then the university would have to fire that person.
LSU has not fired any employee involved in covering up — or at least failing to report — several incidents of sexual misconduct and domestic violence, involving football players. University officials have said they can’t fire any employees, in part because it wasn’t clear that staff might be fired for not reporting such an issue. Freeman is trying to clear up any confusion.
Sen. Regina Barrow, D-New Orleans, also has legislation that would create an oversight panel to review how public universities are handling sexual misconduct and other relationship violence on campus.
Keeping the COVID-19 vaccine optional
A couple of Republican lawmakers want to pass laws that would prevent the government from requiring people to have a COVID-19 vaccine and other immunizations.
Rep. Kathy Edmonston, R-Gonzales, has legislation that would prohibit the government from requiring people to have any vaccine or immunity status to access government programs, licenses and other services. The government would also not be able to block people from participating in a public hearing if they aren’t vaccinated or immunized.
Edmonston’s bill does provide an exception for schools and “education institutions,” which currently require vaccinations and would be able to continue to do so.
Restrictions on transgender children
Conservative lawmakers have introduced bills that would prohibit gender-affirming medical care for transgender children and teenagers. Among other things, the legislation would prohibit transgender children from taking medication that prevents puberty, which is common among young transgender people, and gender-affirming counseling or therapy.
Other legislation would prohibit transgender girls and women from participating in girls and women sports competitions.
Similar restrictions have been approved in other Southern states recently.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a police officer in Minneapolis, lawmakers are considering tightening up restrictions on police officers in Louisiana.
Among the proposals being floated is one by Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge. James is proposing shortening the time period in which an officer under investigation for wrongdoing has the option of getting an attorney, which should speed up such investigations. The legislation would also require complaints against an officer be kept on file for at least a decade.
Getting sports betting up and running
Voters in 55 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes have approved sports betting for those communities. Now, lawmakers have to come up with a framework and set of rules around which it would work.
Some of the larger issues include where sports betting will be allowed to take place. Some pro-gambling advocates want it to be allowed on mobile phones and other electronic devices, but others are pushing for it to be located solely at casinos, racetracks and video poker outlets.
Another issue will be what happens to the tax revenue generated by sports betting. There’s a big push from legislative leadership to have the funding dedicated to early childhood education.
Expand access to marijuana
A number of lawmakers have proposed legislation to expand access to marijuana, both medicinal and recreational varieties.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, R-Houma, has legislation that would allow medical marijuana to be prescribed in its crude or raw form. Currently, medical marijuana in Louisiana cannot be distributed in a crude, raw or plant form — or any form that allows it to be inhaled.
In recent years, several Democrats have also introduced bills to legalize marijuana for all uses, but in 2021, a Republican has also introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow voters to approve recreational marijuana if they wanted to do so. Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Covington, is carrying that legislation, which would require approval from two-thirds of lawmakers to land on the ballot for voters in 2022.