2021 was a tumultuous year in Louisiana politics; here's a look back
Gov. John Bel Edwards held his traditional year-end press conference in mid December, marking the end of a tumultuous year in Louisiana politics.
The ongoing fight against COVID-19, hurricanes, floods, a heated legislative session, the first veto session in state history and acrimonious political debates that have surrounded each of those events created what even Gov. Edwards acknowledges was a tough year for Louisiana.
“It seems to me and to many Louisianans that these challenges have been continuous, they have been numerous and quite frankly they’ve been overwhelming and to some degree exhausting,” Edwards said. “I’m well aware of that, and our people are quite understandably tired.”
There’s a lot of ground to cover, so buckle up as we go through the top stories in Louisiana politics from 2021.
Despite the arrival of vaccines for the most vulnerable Louisianans at the end of 2020 and more broadly by early spring, 2021 was the deadliest year of the pandemic in Louisiana. More than 500,000 Louisianans tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 8,000 ultimately died from the disease this year.
Residents made it through two coronavirus surges, one after the 2020 holiday season and the other over the summer when the delta variant had reached Louisiana, each surge deadlier than the last. The state reached its all-time high in hospitalizations during the fourth surge on Aug. 14 at 3,022 patients.
In response to the ebb and flow of COVID-19 spread throughout the year, state officials loosened and tightened restrictions multiple times, with spring 2021 being the first time since the pandemic began in March 2020 that protocols from the shutdown, such as occupancy limits and the mask mandate, were lifted.
Edwards reinstituted his statewide mask mandate on Aug. 2, just days before most K-12 schools and universities returned to campuses for the start of the fall semester. Edwards made it clear that the mandate would apply in school settings, and the move prompted a swift and fierce backlash from some parents and Republican elected officials.
The governor once again removed the mask mandate in October.
The deadly surge in August also led to officials pleading with the public to get COVID vaccines, which are available to everyone 5 years and older in Louisiana. However, the state’s rates have remained some of the lowest in the nation since they became available earlier this year.
Now, the rise of the highly-transmissible omicron variant has public health experts worried that Louisiana is on the front end of yet another surge of the coronavirus. Last week, the Louisiana Department of Health issued guidance recommending all individuals — regardless of vaccine status — wear masks indoors and test regularly before and after holiday gatherings. They urged Louisianans in the strongest possible terms to get vaccinated or receive their booster doses if they had not already done so.
Backlash to public health measures
State lawmakers pushed a slew of bills that would have limited the governor’s ability to enforce public health regulations, and curbed the department of health’s ability to require students to be vaccinated not just against COVID-19, but for many other preventable illnesses as well. A few of those measures gained traction in the legislature and won final passage, but Gov. Edwards was waiting with his veto pen.
He struck down HB103, HB149 and HB498 saying each bill would have hindered the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and others like it.
The most significant battle over COVID-19 restrictions took place in the courts, where state Attorney General Jeff Landry set himself apart as one of the most vocal opponents of public health measures.
Landry issued a non-binding legal opinion arguing that the state’s top school board, not Gov. John Bel Edwards, had the authority to dictate masking policies in public schools. Landry also distributed instructions to his staff and to the public that showed Christians could claim a religious exemption from the school’s mask mandate. The form letters included scriptural justification for the exemptions.
Edwards called the letters and the legal opinion “sad,” “regrettable,” “irresponsible” and “dangerous.”
Still, a vocal minority of anti-mask parents vociferously opposed the governor's mandate. A crowd of anti-mask protesters derailed a meeting of the state’s top school board before the panel could issue masking rules that had contradicted the governor’s order and prompted a legal resolution of the dispute. Masks remained firmly in place in Louisiana classrooms until Edwards relaxed his mask mandate in October.
In December, Landry filed a lawsuit challenging a department of health rule that would add the COVID-19 vaccination to the list of required immunizations for Louisiana school children starting next year.
As written, the LDH vaccine requirement only applies to vaccines that have been fully approved by the FDA, meaning only school children age 16 and up would have to get the shots until federal regulators grant full approval for the vaccine in younger children.
The Republican attorney general, who has long-planned a gubernatorial bid in 2023, also filed federal lawsuits against the Biden administration’s workplace vaccine requirements issued through Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services rules changes.
Landry and the other Republican attorneys general who filed the suits won early victories in the form of preliminary injunctions from Louisiana-based federal judges. The rulings blocked the vaccine requirements from taking effect in most states until the cases can have full hearings.
Louisiana experienced a variety of natural disasters in 2021, none more costly in lives and property than Hurricane Ida.
Ida made landfall near Port Fourchon as a Category 4 hurricane and tore through southeast Louisiana with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour, torrential rains and life-threatening storm surge. The storm tied with 2020’s Hurricane Laura as the strongest to ever hit the state.
It caused 33 deaths in Louisiana and tens of billions of dollars in property damage and left hundreds of thousands of Louisianans without power or clean water for months. In September, Congress passed a stop-gap spending bill that included $28.6 billion in federal aid for disasters across the country. The legislation dedicated $2.7 billion of that amount as a “down payment” for Hurricane Ida recovery.
As of Dec. 16, Edwards said more than 11,000 people with homes damaged by Hurricane Ida are still living in hotels provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The state has deployed 2,500 temporary trailers to the region, but the state has yet to create a permanent housing rehabilitation program because of bureaucratic red tape.
The storm also highlighted the long-standing deficiencies in Louisiana’s power grid. Utility companies have begun to pass the cost for those upgrades onto customers prompting outrage from regulators in New Orleans and across the state.
And lagging insurance payouts have prompted angry legislative oversight hearings at the state capitol but little in the way of relief for storm victims.
And as southeast Louisiana dug out from the damage of Hurricane Ida, residents of southwest Louisiana still waited for supplemental federal disaster aid for Hurricanes Laura and Delta, which ravaged the region last year.
The disaster aid bill passed by Congress in September included $595 million in federal disaster relief for victims of those two storms. State and local officials described the amount as “too little, too late” for a region with more than $3 billion in unmet needs. But state and local officials quickly used the money to stand up a long-term housing program aimed at repairing area residents' damaged homes.
Social issues in the legislature
Some of the hottest topics of the 2021 regular session were imported from the national political stage. State lawmakers spent much of their time debating bills that would limit transgender girls’ access to school sports, legalize and decriminalize marijuana in the state and de-regulate concealed-carry firearms.
The legislature voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and vastly expanded the state’s medical marijuana program to include smokable forms of the drug. An effort to legalize recreational marijuana in Louisiana failed on the House floor, but the measure made it farther than any of its predecessors had.
And despite opposition from Louisiana police chiefs, the legislature voted overwhelmingly to remove all permitting and training requirements for individuals over the age of 21 who wanted to carry concealed firearms. Louisiana’s so-called “constitutional carry” bill was part of a national push by gun owner rights advocates targeting gun regulations at the state level.
Other debates about critical race theory and what aspects of race and racism should be taught in Louisiana classrooms blew up before legislation on the topic reached a floor vote. The discussion cost Rep. Ray Garofalo (R-Chalmette) his role as chairman of the House Education Committee. The Republican Party of Louisiana has held several closed door strategy meetings to discuss how it will tackle the incendiary issue in the upcoming legislative session.
Lawmakers were successful in passing Republican-sponsored legislation that would ban transgender girls from high school athletic competitions. The bill was panned by LGBTQ activists, and Edwards broke with custom and gave early indication that he would veto the bill if it reached his desk.
With those battle lines drawn, the Republican sponsors of the bill plowed ahead and even won the support of a handful of Democrats in passing the bill.
In July, Republican legislative leaders called the first veto session in state history in an attempt to override Edwards’ veto of the proposed ban of transgender girls from school athletic competitions.
The bill — dubbed the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act” by its supporters — was the driving force behind the veto session, but Republican state lawmakers also hoped to override Edwards’ veto of legislation that would have removed training and registration requirements for people who carry concealed firearms.
The GOP controls a “veto-proof” two-thirds majority in the state Senate and is just two seats shy of that mark in the House of Representatives. Republican legislative leaders were keen to capitalize on those majorities to override Edwards’ veto and usher in a new era of legislative independence in Louisiana politics.
Instead, they went home empty-handed.
The veto override failed in the House of Representatives on a 68-30 vote, falling two votes short of the 70 needed to override a gubernatorial veto. Edwards secured support from all but one Democrat in the House, all three Independent representatives, and one Republican to fend off the veto override.
After the effort failed, and it was apparent that Republican legislative leaders could not marshall the votes needed to override any of Edwards’ vetoes, Louisiana lawmakers decided to end the session four days ahead of schedule.
Edwards’ ability to fend off this override effort means his veto pen will be a viable tool for his remaining time in office, including during next year’s redistricting session when state lawmakers will redraw the boundaries of the state’s congressional and state legislative districts, among others.
But House Speaker Clay Schexnayder (R-Gonzales) vowed to bring the controversial anti-trans legislation back in 2022 and said that the veto override session would become a regular fixture in the Louisiana political landscape.
Not all doom and gloom
But there were some bright spots in Louisiana politics this year. The state, flush with federal coronavirus relief dollars and higher-than-expected tax revenues, saw some of the smoothest budget negotiations in recent memory.
And lawmakers made their most significant investment in the state’s aging transportation and water infrastructure in decades. With more money on the way, lawmakers expect to double down on those investments in 2022.
Gov. Edwards said he will propose lawmakers spend the $1.4 billion in unspent federal pandemic aid on transportation projects, water and sewer systems, rural broadband and to shore up the state’s dwindling unemployment insurance trust fund.