Jeremy Alford: Special session may be in Legislature's future
Due to disruptions brought about by COVID-19, Louisiana lawmakers are now expecting at least one special session to be called in Baton Rouge, possibly following the June 1 adjournment of the ongoing regular session. Essential budgetary and health care needs will need to be addressed, and additional lawmaking hours will be required.
Our senators and representatives convened their regular session on March 9, the same day Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Louisiana’s first official case of coronavirus. Roughly five weeks have passed since then, and the Legislature has yet to find an opportunity to safely return to Baton Rouge to get the policymaking ball rolling.
As such, many others who ply a trade inside the Capitol aren’t ruling out a second special session for 2020, either, maybe in the fall. There have been some suggestions that a second special session could be dedicated to the topic of economic development. (The governor, for his part, recently announced that an economic development task force was being formed to help guide the state’s recovery.)
To be certain, lawmakers have a variety of topics they want to cover this calendar year, and a regular session followed by a single special session may not be enough. For example, about two weeks ago most lawmakers I interviewed said their constituent calls largely involved queries about school closures. But since then unemployment questions have dominated district offices. So you can expect to see that on a committee agenda in some form in the coming months.
Tort reform may have to wait, as far as the ongoing regular session is concerned, but an economic development special session could allow a token bill of sorts to be advanced, temporarily satisfying the thirst that developed during the last election cycle. The messaging connected to the importance of tort reform, however, isn’t going anywhere.
Speaker Clay Schexnayder, according to a spokesperson, has assembled a small group of representatives to reach out to business and industry to seek ideas for “super-charging” the Louisiana economy. Whatever emerges from that exercise could end up on an agenda too.
In terms of revenue, lawmakers and lobbyists alike seem to be quietly circling around the sales tax structure and statutory dedications. (For now.) Just the mention of both issues will surely stir up a violent reaction from some folks, but they’re nonetheless part of the general conversation.
Historically, lawmakers have turned to sales tax changes during times of emergency and great need. While opponents would argue that it targets the poorest among us, the Legislature has traditionally viewed the sales tax structure as a path of least resistance when compared to other forms of higher tax rates.
Statutory dedications, meanwhile, have been a thorn in the side of conservative lawmakers for a while, and Sen. Sharon Hewitt led a panel through a review of all 370 statuary dedications a couple years ago in hopes of shedding new light on the matter and configuring a new management style for the funds.
Speaking of special sessions, the only one that’s actually anticipated should be called some time next year, to tackle the decennial task of redistricting. That undertaking is roughly a year away, but some leaders are already sweating the most basic functions of the survey effort underway by the U.S. Census.
Door-to-door appeals are on hold due to the pandemic and the deadline to complete the headcount, which is used to allocate federal dollars and draw election lines, has been pushed back from July to August. Lawmakers and governors in a few states are asking for another extension as Census officials contend they’re sticking to the mandated Dec. 31 deadline for handing over a finished product to Congress and the president.
We can hope a learning curve on the legislative level won’t accompany the Census questions hampering the feds. Dwight said a redistricting training session for legislative leaders next month has been canceled and a September seminar in Portland for House and Senate committee members is uncertain at best.
If members want to follow the legislative model from the 2011 process, they’re just eight months away from scheduling statewide meetings and 12 months away from the House submitting a redistricting plan.
In late 2009 committee members also participated in a two-day training event, but the Legislature wasn’t facing the kind of turnover that marked this current term. So no such training exercise was held last year, but freshmen House members did receive a 10,000-foot view briefing from the staff.
The good news in all of this is that the Legislature can be somewhat nimble. They could reconvene their regular session in early May and work around the clock. Along with the governor they could host one special session after another if needed, although that’s unlikely. Lawmakers will adapt, plain and simple.
Let’s just hope they deliver for us as well. There’s no eliminating politics from this process, and any promise to do so would be fool-hearted. But politics can take a seat in the proverbial back row, staying six feet away from anything truly important. That kind of social distancing would most certainly be welcome.
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