No Telling When They'll Be Back

Louisiana Legislature adjourns indefinitely, due to coronavirus pandemic

Speaking from the White House Rose Garden on Sunday, March 29, President Trump extended the federal recommendations for social distancing to combat COVID-19 to April 30, and suggesting restricted activity might need to be continued for another month after that.

On Monday, during what have become regular press conferences updating Louisiana’s state of emergency, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Louisiana will be prolonging its emergency orders to stay home, as well..

“Federal mitigation efforts are now extended through April 30, sending the message that we are nowhere near over the hump. By the end of this week, I will issue an additional proclamation extending mine to be in line with that, and it may extend beyond, depending,” the governor stated.

When the Louisiana Legislature reconvened the morning of Tuesday, March 31, with barely more than a quorum in each chamber, legislative leadership made it abundantly clear there’s no road map for this.

“Many of you have asked about the plan for when we reconvene,” House Speaker Clay Schexnayder said, near the start of the day’s business. “At the end of our required business, we will have a motion to adjourn upon the call of the presiding officer. We need to keep it open-ended until we see a clear path to come back.”

Louisiana’s first COVID-19 case was announced on Monday, March 9, the first day of the 2020 session. One week later, state lawmakers reluctantly adjourned for two weeks, hoping this would help in slowing the spread, and they could safely return to work. Unfortunately, this coronavirus, like spring flowers, was already prepared to burst into bloom. As of Tuesday, March 31, Louisiana has 5237 confirmed cases in 60 of the state’s 64 parishes. 1355 state residents are hospitalized, and 239 people have died.

Lawmakers had to come back on the 31st, in order to meet the deadline for first reading of bills for the regular session. The Senate added 91 new proposals to their docket, with 28 of those set to address issues resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. The House read in 146 new bills, with 23 of those clearly being filed as a direct result of COVID-19.

The bills prefiled to deal with this health emergency include measures to let local government groups conduct public meetings electronically, as well as extension of deadlines for filing taxes, lawsuits, and TOPS applications.

Yet one has to wonder whether some of these lawmakers are seeing and living through the same virus epidemic as the rest of us, based on bills they felt necessary to file right now.

For example, there are bills by freshman Reps. Reggie Bagala and Charles Henry. Bagala (R- Cut Off) has HB 765, to authorize “LSU National Champions” license plates. Henry (R-Metairie), Congressman Steve Scalise’s former chief of staff and the brother of now-state Senator Cameron Henry, has HB 773, to authorize New Orleans Pelicans license plates.

How crucial is this, right now?

Is HB 831 by Rep. Tanner Magee (R-Houma), to permit the use of blowguns for hunting truly needful at the present juncture?

And speaking of weapons, the purported logic behind a couple of emergency-specific bills is equally baffling. Rep. Beryl Amedee (R-Houma) and Rep. Blake Miguez (R-Erath) have each filed bills to remove the governor’s ability to suspend gun and ammunition sales during a declared emergency.

Miguez’s HB 781 specifically states “Firearms and ammunition manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, suppliers and retailers are essential businesses and operations for purposes of safety and shall not be prohibited or restricted from operating or conducting business during a declared emergency or disaster.”

In the aftermath of a hurricane, tornado or flooding disaster, a firearm might be needed to “for purposes of safety,” but this is a health emergency. Do you find people wearing surgical masks threatening? And what are you going to do, shoot the virus so it can’t get in your lungs?

Speaking of taking shots, let us hope the seriousness of this pandemic is sufficient to eventually defer Rep. Amedee’s package of bills based on her anti-vaxxer beliefs. The quartet of proposals – HB 467, 468, 642, and 667 – endeavor to increase parental fear regarding the safety of immunizations and vaccinations, ban requiring immunizations as a condition of employment, and would prohibit health insurers from using incentive programs to encourage health providers to get more patients vaccinated and immunized.

One of the new bills filed, however, is particularly poignant. HB 848 renames Act 833 of the 2014 session, a law that provides alternative paths for special education students to be promoted and graduate, the “April Dunn Act.” April Dunn, who served as a member of the staff in the Governor’s Office of Disability Affairs and chaired the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council, passed away from COVID-19 complications on March 28. The author of HB 848, honoring Dunn, is Rep. Ted James (D- Baton Rouge), who is himself presently hospitalized fighting COVID-related pneumonia.

We wish him speedy and complete healing.

As for when – if ever – lawmakers will be able to begin again working through the nearly 1500 bills and resolutions now filed for this session, Senate President Page Cortez was clear that the way ahead is completely foggy.

“Normally, we would set a time to return. Some ask if committees meet before recovene. It’s very fluid. If mandated to meet, we will, according to CDC guidelines. Some meetings are allowed to be done by teleconference. According to constitution, statute and rules, we are not allowed to do so.

“Normally, we would set a time to return, but this is all changing so rapidly that – literally – an email from last night is no longer accurate this morning. The one thing we must do is pass a budget, but all the business cessations, combined with the steep decline in oil prices make revenue estimates entirely uncertain – so much so that it looks now that the April 8 REC meeting will be rescheduled,” Cortez told members of the upper chamber. “We have no clear or real idea what the effects will be, and in fact, there will probably be no clear picture before late fall.”

And with that, Louisiana’s Senate and House stand adjourned until their Speaker and Senate President call them back to work.

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Sue Lincoln
Sue Lincoln is a veteran and widely-respected reporter who has been covering Louisiana politics for nearly three decades. Originally from Long Beach, California, Sue’s career in journalism began on the radio in Los Angeles. After moving to Louisiana, Sue earned her bachelor’s degree. For ten years, from 2000-2010, she was the Assistant News Director at Louisiana Network. Sue also worked as the education reporter for Louisiana Public Broadcasting and has contributed to various state publications as a freelance journalist. But she is perhaps best known as the voice of the popular politics Capitol Access.