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Louisiana Legislature Calls Special Session To Address Coronavirus Restrictions, Unemployment Crisis

Paul Braun
State representatives gather on the floor of the Louisiana House of Representatives on the final day of the First Extraordinary Session, Jun. 30, 2020.

The Louisiana Legislature will convene its second special session of year at 6 p.m. Monday to address the state’s coronavirus restrictions, Hurricane Laura recovery efforts and the dwindling unemployment trust fund.

The special session must adjourn no later than 6 p.m. Oct. 27.

Once again, the legislature’s Republican leaders called themselves back into session, an option they have had for years but one they rarely exercised until earlier this year after the regular legislative session was put on hold for several weeks to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Because they called themselves back, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez — both Republicans — get to decide what topics the legislature can take up during lawmakers' one-month return to the capital. Their 70-item agenda is wide ranging. Their stated priorities center around storm recovery and on-going issues with COVID-19, “especially relative to funding and the economy.”

“A special session is needed to address unforeseen problems related to the in-person education of our children and their return to extracurricular activities, the survival of our economy and the opening up of business, and the recovery of the areas of our state devastated by Hurricane Laura,” Schexnayder said in a press release Monday.

State lawmakers have expressed interest in replenishing the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund — the source of the weekly state unemployment benefits that are being paid to more than 250,000 out-of-work Louisianans. After reporting a balance of more than $1 billion last year, the fund is nearly insolvent with less than $80 million on hand.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said Cortez and Schexnayder’s agenda is too wide-ranging.

“The most questionable thing about the call is the sheer number of items in it, the vast majority of which have nothing to do with the public health emergency,” Edwards said during his Tuesday briefing. “And so I think that’s obviously problematic, and in and of itself suggests that some of them don’t see the emergency for what it is.”

His recent comments echo his criticism of the Republican-controlled legislature following this summer’s special session, when Edwards accused the GOP of ramming through controversial legislation while public comment was limited by public safety measures.

The Democratic governor and Republican legislative leaders have never seen eye-to-eye on coronavirus mitigation measures.

Now, Schexnayder is vowing to curb Edwards’ executive power in times of emergency. The GOP has balked at Edwards’ business restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, but has been unable to strip those orders because of what they describe as an
“imbalance of power.”

“This special session will not end without a resolution to this problem,” Schexnayder said in a press release.

Edwards said Monday that he would oppose any effort to repeal the proclamations he has made during the public health emergency or limit his ability to enact further coronavirus mitigation measures.

“The fact of the matter is that you cannot declare and respond to a public health emergency by committee, and the [state] constitution isn’t set up that way either,” Edwards said during his Tuesday media briefing.

“What is it that my most vocal critics are concerned about,” Edwards asked from the podium. “Because every action that I have taken has been consistent with the science and the data — consistent with the White House Coronavirus Task Force guidelines. And yet you never hear them say that when they’re being critical.”

Louisiana leads the nation in COVID-19 cases per capita.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.