Louisiana lawmakers reached a bipartisan agreement on tort reform, passed extensive tax breaks for businesses, voted to shield schools from civil liability during the COVID-19 pandemic, and passed the $34 billion state operating budget just one day before the start of the new fiscal year.
Here's a recap what passed in the final hours of the First Extraordinary Session of 2020:
The House and Senate have adjourned Sine Die, officially ending the legislative session.
State lawmakers have finalized the $34 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, minimizing cuts to state agencies and programs by using hundreds of millions of one-time coronavirus relief dollars from the federal government.
The final version of the spending plan accounts for millions of dollars of businesses tax breaks that passed this session and puts a temporary hold on $60 million of planned pay raises for state employees. Both moves were opposed by Gov. John Bel Edwards and Democratic state lawmakers.
Their work on state spending plan has spanned two legislative sessions and several months. They finished just two hours before the 6 p.m. end of the legislative session.
Gov. John Bel Edwards and state lawmakers started the year expecting a multimillion-dollar budget surplus, but the emergence of a global pandemic and plunging oil prices took a $900 million bite out of state revenue projections.
Edwards characterized the final budget agreement as reasonable, but expressed concern at the expansion of tax breaks given the state's grim economic outlook.
"We did an awful lot of work over the first four years to restore sanity to the fiscal situation in the state of Louisiana," Edwards said in his end-of-session press conference. "You don't want to go back to the days we just came out of."
Republican legislative leaders said if given time, the tax breaks will pay for themselves by stimulating the economy. In the meantime, the $60 million savings from delaying state employees' pay raises, and money redirected from the state's construction budget will soften the blow of a possible mid-year budget shortfall.
State lawmakers have reached a deal on controversial tort reform legislation aimed at reducing car insurance premiums by curbing personal injury lawsuits stemming from car accidents.
HB57 by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder is the result of lengthy bipartisan negotiations. Republican l legislative leaders hailed the passage of the bill as an "historic" accomplishment that will benefit Louisiana businesses and car insurance customers. Gov. John Bel Edwards has indicated that he will sign the bill.
“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.
Both the House and Senate have approved a measure aimed at protecting K-12 schools and universities from civil liability if students and teachers contract the coronavirus when on-campus activities resume this fall, but before they can send it to Gov. John Bel Edwards' desk, the lawmakers from the two chambers have to settle a disagreement over the scope of the bill.
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.
Late Monday, the House voted to reject the changes made by the Senate, sending the bill to a conference committee.
On Monday, the Senate approved HB19 by Thomas Pressly (R-Shreveport), a measure that 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.
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.