Despite, or Just Plain Old Spite?

Despite the Governor’s extension of the statewide stay-at home proclamation to May 15, despite a House member having died from COVID-19, and despite the Senate President himself having been infected; the Louisiana Legislature is coming back into session tomorrow.

“We have got to get back and start doing our business,” Senate President Page Cortez said, after the Governor announced he would be extending his stay-at-home order another two weeks. “We are essential to government operations. We are just as essential as grocery stores and the Home Depots and Lowe’s of the world.”

State Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge), who from late March through early April spent several terrifying days and nights hospitalized and battling for his life and breath due to COVID-related pneumonia, has said don’t expect him to be there.

“The virus isn’t going away in June. It is not going away in August. But we still have to have a budget by June 30,” Senate President Cortez said.

The committee meetings thus far scheduled for the beginning of this first week back don’t include the spending or revenue panels, and the bills on the agendas of the committees that are meeting don’t seem to have anything to do with resolving issues related to the pandemic.

Occupational licensing waivers for military families (HB 613), regulating how banks handle abandoned safe deposit boxes (HB 427), regulating electric-assisted bicycles (HB 514), forfeiture of property related to sex crimes (SB 383) – none of these seem especially urgent or pertinent to minimizing the overall effects of the virus on residents’ health or Louisiana’s economy.

But until the Revenue Estimating Conference holds its mid-May meeting, and we all hear what the Division of Administration’s Manfred Dix and the Legislative Fiscal Office’s Greg Albrecht offer as their best guesstimates of the economic impacts of the pandemic, there’s no target number for making the present budget balance or for planning a new one for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Why, then, is the Legislature reconvening now? It’s partly because the Republican leadership have been persuaded by their LABI masters that this is the optimal time to shove tort reform through.

When officially announcing the date and times of lawmakers’ return to work, Senate President Cortez pitched tort reform, i.e., changing access to the courts for those involved in vehicular accidents, as a financial relief measure that would help state residents with the impacts of corona virus. Cortez said that’s because proponents of those bills argue auto insurance premiums will be reduced once tort reform is enacted.

This is, of course, in direct contradiction to actual studies of the verifiable factors contributing to Louisiana’s generally exorbitant vehicle insurance premium rates. Those studies were revealed in full in the Bayou Brief’s Wrecked series, and were presented in testimony to the legislature last year.

Another motivation for resuming the legislative session before the Governor and federal or state health experts deem it wise or advisable to lift restrictions designed to reduce virus transmission is pure partisan gamesmanship. As our own Lamar White’s article disclosed, there’s memo from a GOP consultant that’s been circulated by Republican state lawmakers. It goes into detail about the power of semantics, listing “good words (words to use)” and “trap words (words to avoid)” in what is bluntly described as “a coordinated campaign aimed at politicizing and undermining the emergency orders issued by Gov. John Bel Edwards in curtailing the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Stop for a moment and think about all the implications of what that says. For the extremist true believers in the Louisiana Republican Party, it is not tragic enough to have close to 2,000 Louisiana residents dead of COVID-19, and nearly 30,000 here known to be infected. They are sharing ways to sabotage the governor’s emergency orders to curtail the pandemic. In other words, some legislators in the red uniforms want to win the game against the governor in blue so badly that they’re willing for their own teammates and you, their fans, to sicken and even die.

Another part of this entire scenario is a resolution that will likely get its introduction in the House on Monday morning or – at the latest – Tuesday. Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport) has been circulating a petition, seeking 53 House members to sign onto a resolution to overturn the governor’s emergency health declaration and stay-at-home orders. State law (RS 29:724) does include a provision permitting a simple majority of either the House or Senate to pass a resolution which would terminate the governor’s order declaring a state of disaster or emergency.

In the email to Republican lawmakers, Seabaugh says, “This may not be a perfect solution, but it is the only one on the table. Doing nothing is not an option!”

The Shreveport representative has taken his campaign to the airwaves, and, as has been his pattern during his previous verbal skirmishing with Gov. Edwards, spent some quality ranting and raving time on KEEL radio’s morning show, saying he is convinced the people of Louisiana can’t take too much more of the economic quarantine.

“Poverty kills more people every year than sickness or disease,” Seabaugh said on the radio program. “Poverty kills people…and right now what we’re doing is we’re forcing people into poverty.”

Gov. Edwards’ executive counsel Matthew Block has issued a letter to lawmakers, reminding them that under the Stafford Act, a state emergency declaration is required before money from federal disaster programs can be released. If legislators terminate the emergency declaration, that could halt Louisiana’s expected $1.8 billion share of the $2 trillion federal stimulus, among other things. That means each Louisiana resident who has gotten the $1200 stimulus payment would have to pay it back.

How is that going to help Louisiana’s people struggling with poverty?

Remarking that “it makes no sense” to overturn the emergency order, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne told The Advocate the state is expecting at least 75% of its costs to combat this coronavirus to be covered by the federal government – because of the emergency order. Dardenne said with about $586 million spent so far, the total could reach or exceed $662 million, “at which point the feds would pick up 90% of the tab.”

“Nonsensical” is a word JBE used, as well.

“Silly is not the right word,’ Edwards said at one of his virus update press conferences this past week. “It would be profoundly regrettable. That would just be completely irresponsible and nonsensical to be the only state in the nation without an emergency declaration in place for the public health emergency of COVID-19.”

Yet House Speaker Clay Schexnayder seems to be receptive to the concept of Seabaugh’s resolution, as he has put out a statement saying he is “incredibly frustrated with Governor Edwards’ unilateral decision” to extend the stay-at-home order and that “people are ready to re-open the economy.”

One could reasonably characterize Rep. Seabaugh as a recurrent thorn-in-the-side for Gov. John Bel Edwards. Even before Edwards was duly elected governor in November 2015, Seabaugh penned a Letter to the Editor, published in the USA-Today chain of newspapers in Shreveport, Monroe, Alexandria, Lafayette, and Opelousas, shading Edwards’ votes as a state representative and stances on issues in a way that prompted ten other House members to respond with their own letter. In it they call Seabaugh’s statements “distorted facts” and “offensive untruths.”

On Inauguration Day, in January 2016, speaking to NY Times about the Louisiana House breaking tradition and going with someone other than the governor’s choice for Speaker, Seabaugh made his differences with Edwards sound personal, rather than politically partisan. The Shreveport Republican said, “I think he thought he was going to push us around. He found out today, very clearly, that he can’t do that.”

Upon finally passing a budget in June 2016, after one regular and two contentious special sessions trying to deal with the nearly two billion-dollar fiscal shortfall Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal left behind, Seabaugh was continued with his invective toward the now Democratic denizen of the Governor’s Mansion. He wrote an op-ed, saying considering the size of the state, the budget was one-third larger than it should be. “If managed in a fiscally responsible manner, the amount of revenue currently generated by the state of Louisiana should lead to a massive budget surplus,” Seabaugh wrote. “Why no surplus this year? The answer is simple. Governor Edwards and his allies in the legislature don’t want one.”

In March 2018, during another special session attempting to come up with a more permanent fix than the temporary sales tax enacted in 2016, Rep. Alan Seabaugh got up on the floor of the House and called Gov. John Bel Edwards “a bald-faced liar.” Yet as we reported then, Seabaugh didn’t have the courage to subsequently answer the governor’s invitation to come up to the 4th Floor and have a little chat.

Seabaugh running out the clock in June 2018.

On June 4, 2018, Seabaugh played a pivotal role in the failure of that year’s second special and third overall session, by filibustering during the final minutes. As we reported at the time, the Shreveport Republican’s actions prevented reconsideration of a bill that would have put the budget, as is constitutionally required, in balance. Seabaugh openly admitted his purpose, saying his intent was “running out the clock.”

In the Governor’s primary last fall, Seabaugh threw his support to Congressman Ralph Abraham, who lost. Even after John Bel Edwards ultimately defeated Eddie Rispone on Saturday, Nov. 16, Seabaugh was sounding like a sore loser. First thing Monday morning after the Saturday decision by voters, he went on his local radio station promising the governor would face “more fights and more vetoes” during his second term.

Compare Seabaugh’s animosity toward Gov. John Bel Edwards to what’s been exhibited toward the governor by Attorney General Jeff Landry. The Edwards-Landry spats have clearly been partisan, but the A.G. did the decent and proper thing by coming out in support of the governor’s initial disaster declaration and stay-at-home order. Seabaugh’s hostility, on the other hand, has a personal edge to it that must be categorized as “spiteful.”

Take a look at who came out to tailgate across from the Governor’s Mansion Saturday, demonstrating their support for overriding the stay-at-home edict. Organized by Republican Rep. Danny McCormick of Oil City, a freshman lawmaker from up in Seabaugh’s neck of the woods, the estimated 250 or so demonstrators included members from Life Tabernacle Church in Central. That church’s pastor remains under house arrest after repeatedly defying the state emergency order by holding church services for crowds that far exceeded the allowed maximum of ten people.

Protest at Governor’s Mansion, 5-02-2020. Screenshot from Twitter video by @MarkBallardCnb

Part of the law allowing the legislative body to resolve to dissolve a governor’s disaster declaration is a provision that permits lawmakers to set up “a period during which no other declaration of emergency or disaster may be issued.” If Seabaugh’s resolution does include a provision to that effect, as his pattern of spitefulness might predict, how might that play out?

An immediate mass reopening of Louisiana’s economy would likely spike the COVID infection rate exponentially within the next month. Once more people start sickening, the proper thing would be to send all non-essential personnel back home again, immediately.

Oops. Can’t do that, because 53 Republicans in the House say they know better than the governor and the federal and state health experts he has been consulting with all along.

Once it gets to this point, it has then moved far beyond being a partisan game. It will have become a duel to the death, with we the people as the collateral damage.

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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.