After the Louisiana Legislature roughed up Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards earlier this year, it’s not news that the Republican-led chambers would continue to operate outside of the norm of gubernatorial dominance. In this second special session of the year, the precedent-breaking news is how the GOP majority has defied its own leaders.
For the second time this year, the body called itself into an additional session, and not for the reasons Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and GOP Senate Pres. Page Cortez likely wanted. Earlier this year, many legislators thought the operating budget would run a deficit after the lengthy and relatively severe restrictions Edwards, who has the sole power to do this except for a one-house legislative all-or-nothing veto, had placed on the economy to battle the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. His actions caused the worst economic performance of all the states during this period. Further, both Edwards and the legislature had cooperated in enlarging Louisiana’s fiscal year 2021 budget past its standstill level despite an expected fall in state revenues.
But that downdraft hasn’t been so severe as to cause that type of intervention yet, save a realization that a fiscal year 2022 budget-buster, the deficit growing in the unemployment insurance trust fund, needs addressing. Instead, the main impetus for the session came from majority-party members carping about the overbroad, stale restrictions and wanting to clip Edwards’ wings on his shutting the state down. Another reason to meet again, dealing with the after-effects of Hurricane Laura, also contributed, but even with that it’s questionable whether enough impetus to congregate one more time would have developed without the disgust over the needlessly harsh strictures.
Thus, Cortez and Schexnayder found themselves backed into calling the session, cornered by the threat of multiple petitions which neared enough of the necessary signatures in the House that would cancel Edwards’s emergency powers for varying periods. Then, they tried to control the issue with each sponsoring a bill that sought to put more constraints on Edwards.
Hardly enough, they discovered, at least for the House’s GOP majority. Cortez’s bill SB 29 created a cumbersome committee mainly of legislators allied with the leadership that only had consultative powers. Schexnayder, perhaps feeling more of the heat, put in his bill HB 68 a smaller committee of legislative leaders and gave either a majority of it power to terminate all emergency provisions or the chambers’ entire memberships the ability to supersede a committee decision after a period.
Neither were good enough. Schexnayder’s own caucus, wanting more flexibility than the all-or-nothing approach of the speaker that might discourage action, amended it into allowing veto of specific emergency measures and dropped the threshold to only half of the panel to act. And it savaged Cortez’s bill, inserting a chamber-wide veto process over specific parts.
That bill heads back to the Senate where it could die in conference. No matter, HB 68 arrives there as well along with GOP Reps. Mark Wright’s HB 4, Larry Frieman’s HB 15, and Barry Ivey’s HB 60, all of which allow part or all of one or both chambers to decide whether to cancel certain emergency provisions. And all would take effect no later than the end of the month, if the Senate deals with these this upcoming week.
Because they have a pair of clubs with which to beat Edwards if he doesn’t comply. Given Cortez’s thinly-disguised opposition to a more vigorous gubernatorial check on this issue, even with 27 Republicans of the 39 senators the bills’ proponents might not get enough votes to override a veto, and the 68 Republicans in the house come up a pair short (although initial votes on the half-dozen had some no party and Democrat members voting with the majority) to do the same.
But then there are Schexnayder’s HCR 9 and Ivey’s HCR 15, which suspends to varying degrees the law Edwards used for his declarations. These require only majority votes – which Schexnyader obviously knew he couldn’t stop from forming – and already have passed the House. It’s improbable that Cortez can entice seven others from the GOP to vote against it with him. So, this gives Edwards a choice – either don’t oppose the bills and then have the new process, from whichever bill he finagles them to advance to him, work out that might attenuate many of his restrictions, or have his dictates suspended immediately and perhaps for months.
Should things happen as expected with the Senate approving of most or all of these measures by week’s end, the inevitable Edwards capitulation will be noteworthy, but overshadowed by the willingness of members to take matters into their own hands to accomplish this despite the chamber leaders’ initial reticence.