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State Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin

For Allain, session is about COVID aid, Laura damage

The special legislative session that begins Monday is being billed as a tug of war between the Legislature and the governor over the power to impose coronavirus restrictions on the economy.

St. Mary's senior lawmaker says his focus is on other issues.

For state Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin and chairman of the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, two issues represent the bulk of his agenda.

One is allowing the state government to use federal CARES Act funding effectively in dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic. New guidance indicates
the acceptable uses for the money may not be as limited as once believed provided the Legislature appropriates the funds, Allain said. He's waiting for a Friday meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget for more details.

The other problem is the massive damage inflicted on southwest Louisiana by Hurricane Laura, especially damage to schools, especially McNeese and SOWELA Technical Community College.

"We're going to see if we can get them up and running," Allain said.

The Center Square reported last week that 50 campus buildings lost their roofs at McNeese State alone, and those and other repairs could cost $200 million, according to school President Daryl Burckel.

SOWELA Technical Community College suffered between $75 million and $100 million worth of damage, Chancellor Neil Aspinwall said.

Many other issues could come up in the session, the call for which is both broad and long. The session could a month.

Allain believes a session is needed this fall because of the CARES Act question, but he would have preferred to have waited a few more weeks.

"I'm hoping we can do it in a lot less time," Allain said. "I would hope we could do it in 14 to 20 days. I hope we'll laser-focus on what needs to be done in a shorter time."

The senator isn't sure what the outcome might be in any battle over the governor's power to base economic restrictions on a public health emergency.

Conservative critics have accused Gov. John Bel Edwards of moving too slowly to reopen the economy after his initial stay at home order and closure of nonessential businesses in March. Six months later, with the state in Phase Three of federal coronavirus guidelines, unemployment remains over 9% and 188,000 are without work. Federal unemployment benefit enhancements and the Paycheck Protection Program have expired.

Edwards has defended his actions, saying he has responded first to the emergence of COVID-19 and then to a summertime resurgence of the pandemic in consultation with the White House Coronavirus Task Force and state public health officials.

There has been talk of employing a little-used petition process that would allow either House or Senate members to block emergency proclamations. Allain said he isn't sure that move can be used while the Legislature is actually in session.

"Obviously the governor needs the right to declare emergencies for hurricanes or something like that," Allain said. "I want to see what changes they want to make. ...

"For the most part, when [Edwards] has followed guidance from the White House and the Task Force, he's done well," Allain said. "I think it is time to reopen. I think there's such a thing as personal responsibility."

People should have the right to choose whether to wear a mask, Allain said. And businesses should have the right to refuse to serve people who don't wear masks.

"I believe it all comes down to personal choice," he said.

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