SADOW: What Happens To Tort Reform Will Decide Who Runs Louisiana

It’s time to see whether Louisiana Republican legislative leaders, especially GOP House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, truly are serious about what they call a top legislative priority of this year and if they wish to supplant Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards as the lead policy-maker in the state.

The fate of SB 418 by Republican state Sen. Kirk Talbot will answer both questions. The bill reforms the tort system in regards to vehicle insurance, making Louisiana look much more like other states with far lower insurance rates.

Described by Republican legislators as a leading issue of the session in light of the economically depressive impact of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, Edwards has threatened to veto the measure, and even after its passage in a watered-down form wouldn’t commit to desisting on that account. It passed the Senate, first in its original form then as part of a conference committee compromise, with more than enough votes to override any veto, but in the House while the version that went to conference passed with two more than the 70 votes required, the compromise version garnered only 66.

That came almost exclusively from former supporters not voting on the matter in the final minutes of the regular session. These included all but two of the Democrats who previously had favored it – state Reps. Chad Brown, Jeremy LaCombe, and Malinda White – and two Republicans – states Reps. Blake Miguez and Alan Seabaugh. One Republican who missed both votes and others in the past week, GOP state Rep. Valarie Hodges, voted for the bill in committee.

Undoubtedly, if an override vote needs to occur, it will happen with Hodges present and voting. Reportedly, Miguez and Seabaugh didn’t vote on the conference version because they didn’t like certain aspects of that product. It weakened the effort, specifically in reimbursing in any accident payout a year’s worth times one-and-half of premium.

It’s a concern as this still will keep rates higher than otherwise, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Schexnayder can reassure the pair that fixes will come, perhaps even in the special session, if they support the bill now.

If they do, this significantly increases the chances of the three Democrats coming back on board. Brown’s affirmation had been a bit of a surprise, given his skepticism about the bill’s benefits and timing, but his service as House Insurance Committee chairman Schexnayder could put at risk without Brown’s cooperating. LaCombe and White in 2019 faced spirited Republican challenges in their competitive districts. And, all three could face reelection in 2023 with a district in the meantime reapportioned less favorably in a process Republicans will control.

The trio faces strong headwinds against the trial lawyer lobby that dominates elected Democrats and threw tens of millions of dollars behind the party’s candidates and Edwards in 2019 just to stave off killing the goose that lays the golden eggs of the current tort system for them. The three aren’t going to buck their party that way unless they know they are on the winning side.

Then there’s the single representative who switched his vote, to against, between the version that left the House and the one that returned, Republican state Rep. Joe Stagni. He received a standing committee vice chairmanship and chairmanship of a select committee because of his enthusiastic backing of Schexnayder in the speaker’s contest, but also of returning House Republicans was the least supportive of business-friendly and reform policies economically according to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (Brown and White were just a bit lower).

Having the bill make it into law will provide relative rate relief for Louisianans, even if not as much as some hope. And in doing so, it also confirms that Edwards must take a back seat to the Republican-led Legislature, which over the long run empowers a conservative agenda even more because legislative Democrats know Edwards can’t protect them, so they will leave him out of the loop and deal directly with the legislative leadership.

(And, as long as the subject is insurance, Schexnayder always could make a play to have no party state Rep. Roy Daryl Adams flip. Adams has survived two brutal challenges from GOP candidates in the past 15 months to win and stay in office, and Schexnayder might offer to ease that pressure for 2023.)

Schexnayder has a number of tools to make sure the House keeps up its end on this issue – committee reassignments, pressure on reapportionment, capital outlay projects, and promises for future legislation support. Even though in the special session Republicans could try again – already in the Senate GOP state Sen. Patrick Connick has filed three bills addressing much of the SB 418 content in case a veto comes and sticks, and time exists to file another omnibus bill – it’s best to finish the job with SB 418, not just to ensure some progress happens now but also to put to the sword Edwards’ ability to set the policy-making agenda sooner rather than later.



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