Louisiana lawmakers spent the penultimate day of the special session ducking in an out of backroom negotiations as they finalized the language of tort reform legislation, proposed tax breaks, coronavirus response measures and the state operating budget.
Here’s a rundown:
One-time Payments for Front-line Workers
A bill that will send one-time payments of $250 to front-line workers is on its way to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk after earning final legislative approval on Monday. HB70 will direct $50 million of the state’s $1.8 billion coronavirus relief money to the program.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Sam Jenkins pitched the measure as “hazard pay” for the workers who interfaced with the public in the early days of the outbreak.
To qualify, individuals have to have worked at least 200 hours in an “essential” field while the statewide stay-at-home order was in effect. This includes healthcare workers, first responders, grocery store employees, morticians, bus drivers and workers in many other professions. Recipients may not have a gross annual income of more than $50,000.
Limiting COVID-19 Lawsuits Against Schools
The Senate voted to protect K-12 schools and universities from civil liability if students and teachers contract the coronavirus when on-campus activities resume this fall. HB59 by Buddy Mincey (R-Denham Springs) was originally much broader — the first draft would have prohibited lawsuits filed by someone who contracted any infectious disease as long as an emergency had been declared in response to that outbreak. The Senate narrowed the bill so it would only apply to COVID-19.
Supporters of the bill say it will provide schools with the security they need to resume in-person instruction. But critics say students and teachers who get sick because of a school’s lackadaisical adherence to health guidelines would be left with no legal recourse.
The bill’s sponsors note that it would not impact a school employee’s eligibility for worker’s compensation.
After Monday’s vote, the bill now heads back to the House where state representatives can either accept or reject the changes made by the Senate.
HB19 by Thomas Pressly would expand the pool of businesses that could qualify for tax rebates through the Quality Jobs Program.
On Sunday, the Senate passed HB11 to let businesses keep a larger portion of the sales taxes they collect, and HB13, which would let more businesses participate in the Enterprise Zone Incentive program
All of the bills were drafted at the recommendation of the Louisiana Economic Recovery Task Force — a panel of business representatives formed by Republican legislative leaders to help the state reopen the economy after coronavirus closures.
Democrats in the Senate fought against the measures, pointing out that in 2017 a state task force recommended eliminating the Quality Jobs and Enterprise Zone Incentive programs because they provided a poor “return on investment” for the state.
The cost of business tax breaks that earn final passage this session will be significantly smaller than original estimates, but Edwards and Democratic state lawmakers worry that reducing state revenue by any amount is unwise given the grim economic outlook.
There are a handful of tort reform measures making their way through the legislative process, but so far HB57 by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and HB66 by Rep. Richard Nelson have earned the most bipartisan support.
“Tort reform” is the catchall term for legislation aimed at lowering car insurance rates by limiting personal injury lawsuits stemming from car accidents. The reforms have been the business lobby’s top legislative priority for years.
Supporters say an improved legal climate will bring more insurers to the state, and car insurance premiums will fall, but critics say it would hinder an injured person’s ability to seek damages in court.
Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed tort reform legislation passed during last month’s special session.
The legislative session will end at 6:00 p.m. Tuesday, June 30.