BATON ROUGE, La (AP) — A 30-day Louisiana special session called in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic to assist businesses was going down to the wire Tuesday, with a multibillion-dollar state budget awaiting passage but millions of dollars in tax breaks largely complete.
The House and Senate were working on a $34 billion spending plan to keep programs and services operating in the budget year that begins Wednesday. The proposal uses federal virus aid to stop deep cuts but sets Louisiana up for future financial problems if state tax collections don’t rebound from the virus outbreak.
The special session must end by 6 p.m. on Tuesday.
Also under negotiation was a proposal to shield K-12 schools and colleges from most civil lawsuits if a student or teacher contracts the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus. And lawmakers hadn’t reached a final agreement on the business lobby’s top priority, an effort to rework civil litigation rules to lessen the damage claims that can be awarded in car accident lawsuits.
The special session began June 1, immediately after lawmakers adjourned a regular session shortened by the coronavirus outbreak. The majority-Republican House and Senate crafted the agenda for the special session themselves, only the second time in Louisiana history that lawmakers called themselves into session, rather than letting a governor dictate the plans.
GOP lawmakers said the state needed to help small businesses get on their feet after Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered closures and restrictions to respond to the coronavirus. The Legislature set aside $300 million for small business grants in the regular session and agreed to millions of dollars in business tax cuts in the special session.
The session agenda — crafted in heavy consultation with business lobbying groups — provoked criticism from Democrats, who said it was too heavy on tax break expansions that business organizations have sought for years and had too little focus on struggling workers and families.
“We’re helping our people by giving them the ability to provide for their family, by giving them a job and an opportunity to pay the rent and to pay their light bills and to take care of their kids,” said Senate Republican leader Sharon Hewitt, of Slidell. “Without a little bit of help, these businesses are going to shut down.”
In response to the tax breaks, Democrats successfully persuaded their Republican colleagues to use $50 million in federal COVID-19 aid to give thousands of workers — such as grocery store employees, bus drivers and health care workers — who stayed on the job in the early days of the pandemic a one-time $250 “hazard payment.” To be eligible, employees can earn no more than $50,000 a year.
“We got a win with this thank-you to front-line workers, but by and large we didn’t really come here and do real work for folks that have been impacted,” said Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat hospitalized with COVID-19 earlier this year. “What we’re doing (with the tax breaks) is still setting ourselves up, I believe, for uncertainty with trying to craft a budget next year.”
The budget expected to win final passage Tuesday largely follows an approach advised by Edwards to use nearly $800 million in federal virus aid provided by Congress to avoid steep reductions in programs and services. But senators added language seeking to stall nearly $60 million in planned pay raises for state workers, a move the Democratic governor opposed.
Beyond the financial debates, the death of George Floyd and the national protests over police use of force spilled into the House and Senate, prompting tense discussions.
Black lawmakers successfully created a task force to study police training, misconduct and racial bias recognition in Louisiana. But passage came only after white House lawmakers removed language that mentioned Floyd’s death and that described Black men as more likely to be killed by police than white men. The task force starts work in July and must report its findings to the Legislature by Feb. 1.
House Republicans derailed a separate bill that would have stripped the wide-ranging immunity available to law enforcement officers as a defense against damage claims for wrongful death or injury.
Awaiting a final decision Tuesday were changes to the civil justice system sought by business organizations. Supporters claim the effort will lower insurance rates by making litigation less lucrative, while opponents call it a giveaway to business that will damage injured people’s ability to receive adequate compensation.
Edwards vetoed such a bill passed by lawmakers in the regular session, but Republican lawmakers pushing the legislation hope they’ve found an approach the governor could support.
Written by AP Journalist Melinda Deslatte. Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter.