Louisiana state lawmakers are headed back to the Capitol for the second special legislative session of the year. They’re giving themselves 30 days to address Hurricane Laura recovery, the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, and the nearly-empty Unemployment Trust Fund.
Adam Vos spoke with Capitol Access Reporter Paul Braun about some of the major talking points before the legislature reconvenes Monday afternoon.
Q: Paul, the session was called by legislative leaders instead of Gov. John Bel Edwards. What's the significance of that?
The Louisiana legislature is no stranger to special sessions. This is the ninth special session we've had since Gov. Edwards took office in 2016. But before this year, it was exceedingly rare for anyone but the governor called a special session. This is a very Republican legislature and they are more independent than any we've seen before. And by calling themselves back, Clay Schexnayder and Page Cortez, the Republican Speaker of the House and the Senate President, get to set the agenda. And this agenda is tailored specifically to their party's priorities. And it's really quite large. It's got 70 items on it for a special session.
Q: The governor has been critical of the scope of the session, hasn't he?
Yeah, that's right. He said earlier this week these special sessions are supposed to be focused affairs where the legislature comes in. They take care of a handful of essential items in a matter of days, not weeks. Also, earlier this year, Edwards criticized the GOP for calling a special session and he accused them of basically using that special session to ram through a bunch of controversial bills when folks were locked down and members of the public couldn't come to the capitol and take part in the legislative process.
It’s also worth noting that the Republican legislative leadership said that they want to address what they're calling an “imbalance of power” with the governor's powers during times of emergency. They disapprove of some of the proclamations he's made that have shut down businesses to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Unsurprisingly, Edwards is not a fan of this idea. He says, whether the legislature likes it or not, you can't manage a disaster by committee and that that power should stay with him for now.
Q: What are some of the other issues we're likely to hear about in the coming weeks?
A big one is the state's unemployment insurance trust fund. Last year, that fund had $1.1 billion in it. Today it sits around 40 million. That's because so many people have been thrown out of work by the coronavirus. Just this morning, the folks from the Louisiana Workforce Commission told the state's revenue estimating conference that that fund is going to be empty by October 5th, without any action taken. Now, the state has already started the process to borrow money from the federal government to ensure that state unemployment benefits keep flowing. But anytime the state borrows money for that purpose, they have to tell the feds how they're going to pay that back. And there's sure to be some disagreement between governor Edwards and the GOP over how that might happen.
There's also this ongoing dispute over the main street recovery grant program. This was a program created by Republicans in the legislature earlier this year that would set aside $275 million of coronavirus relief money for small business grants.
Gov. Edwards always wanted that money to go to local governments instead. Now that we're about halfway through the program, Gov. Edwards issued a press release Friday basically calling the program of failure because only $72 million worth of checks have gone out to businesses so far.
State Treasurer John Schroeder did not like that. He called the assertion offensive and he said the program just needed a few weeks to get the word out to businesses and work through some of the kinks. And now he fully expects to pay out all $275 million by their Dec. 1 deadline.