Dozens of new faces as Louisiana opens legislative session

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers kicked off their three-month legislative session Monday, in chambers filled with first-time legislators still learning the layout of the job and giving a more conservative bent to the House and Senate.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards faces uncertainties about how his priorities will fare in a majority-Republican Legislature with new leaders who have pledged to work with the governor but whose early budget approach appears at odds with Edwards.

The governor will speak Monday afternoon to a joint session of the House and Senate, outlining his legislative priorities for the second term he started in January. He’ll also describe Louisiana’s preparations for the new coronavirus, warning that the state is certain to see cases of the COVID-19 disease though it doesn’t currently have any. 

He’ll be looking out on dozens of fresh faces, members who were elected this fall after term limits kept many long-time lawmakers from reelection bids. Forty-three of the House’s 105 members are new to the Legislature. More than half of the state’s 39 senators are new to the chamber, though many are simply moving over from House seats. 

More significantly, Edwards will be negotiating with different legislative leaders. The governor’s most important Republican ally, John Alario, is gone from the Senate president’s job. But one of Edwards’ chief GOP opponents, Taylor Barras, also has exited from the House speaker’s position. Both were forced out by term limits.

Replacing the men are Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, both Republicans. They’ve struck a conciliatory tone toward the governor. 

As always, finances will be front and center in the session — but rather than struggling with cuts, lawmakers will be deciding how to budget new cash coming into the treasury, stemming from a tax deal brokered in 2018. 

“The surplus is certainly going to be a hot topic. The budget is always a hot topic,” said Cortez, of Lafayette.

Before they can settle on spending plans, however, Louisiana’s leaders have to settle on an income forecast. 

Earlier this year, Cortez and Schexnayder blocked the revenue projections sought by Edwards and recommended by nonpartisan economists, saying they thought they were too high. But the governor and legislative leaders said they’re confident they’ll eventually reach agreement on the numbers. Another income forecasting meeting is expected in early April.

Edwards submitted a budget proposal for the 2020-21 financial year that would raise spending across education — from early learning programs to public colleges — based on the income forecast that wasn’t adopted.

House Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, a Houma Republican, instead filed a budget bill that stripped out the $103 million that is the subject of the dispute between Edwards and the legislative leaders. Zeringue said his proposal keeps the increased education spending, but reduces the spending Edwards sought on health programs. 

In a change from prior terms, House and Senate leaders already are negotiating on the budget, rather than waiting until the final days of the session.

“We’re meeting regularly in discussion in terms of how we’re going to work together to move this bill forward,” Zeringue said. “I think it’s better for the body and better for the state.”

Beyond finances, lawmakers will debate a wide array of proposals. 

They’ll consider whether to legalize recreational marijuana, allow sports betting and ban capital punishment. They’ll debate whether to keep transgender students from playing sports aligned with their gender identities and whether to allow college athletes to receive compensation. They’ll consider whether to loosen vaccine requirements, even as the world faces a new coronavirus outbreak. Edwards again will try his long-shot bid to raise Louisiana’s minimum wage.

Republicans’ main priority involves a business-backed rewrite of Louisiana’s civil litigation laws aimed at lessening lawsuits and damage claims against industry, with a special focus on the damages awarded in car accident lawsuits. 

Supporters say the measures could help lower car insurance rates and draw new businesses to Louisiana. Critics describe the proposals as a giveaway to industry that would harm people’s ability to sue for their injuries. Edwards hasn’t taken a position so far.

Lawmakers have filed more than 1,100 bills for consideration — a decline from previous years.

The session must end by June 1.


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