Tight for time, Louisiana Legislature tackles ‘tort reform,’ medical marijuana, gun rights and more

Photo courtesy The Advocate

On Monday evening, the Louisiana Legislature ended one of the oddest sessions in its history. State legislators convened in Baton Rouge March 9, expecting a $500 million surplus, with plans to take up increased spending for early childhood education, K-12 schools and universities. But those plans were ultimately shelved with the ensuing economic downturn. Following a 49-day hiatus from the Capitol due to COVID-19, legislators returned with only four weeks remaining in the regular session facing an expected $900 million shortfall. Lawmakers will tackle that reversal of fortunes in the 30-day special session, which began Monday immediately following the regular session.

The economic shortfall would be devastating, but for the influx of federal funds. With bipartisan support, the governor and the Legislature have agreed to use almost $1 billion in one-time federal relief money to cover state budget gaps. Despite federal aid, there will still be some cuts, with proposed reductions to higher education and the Department of Health. 

While lacking time, the Legislature nevertheless managed to push through several notable bills. Among the most contentious pieces of legislation was the “tort reform” bill related to car accident lawsuits. Proponents of the bill said that by adding controls over the legal process, the cost of car insurance could decrease by 10%. Opponents argued there was no requirement for companies to lower policy premiums, and accident victims could have a harder time recovering damages. Gov. Edwards may veto the bill. Though it passed the Senate 28-10, the House vote was 66-31, below the necessary 70 votes required to override a veto in that chamber. 

In the last minutes of the session, the Legislature also pushed against the governor, seeking to redirect $300 million for small business grants of the $811 million in federal money flagged for local governments — all of it money carved out of a $1.8 billion allocation from the federal stimulus. (Note: this is a different pool of relief funds than the $1 billion mentioned above.) Edwards wants the entire amount to go to local governments, many of which, like Lafayette, face drastic budget shortfalls due to plummeting sales tax collections. Republican lawmakers countered small businesses that have not otherwise received aid need additional support to help jumpstart local economies. Similar to the tort-reform bill, the House vote (63-38) fell short of the veto-proof threshold.

Myriad other bills passed during the session, including many unrelated to the coronavirus response. Criminal justice reform proponents saw several wins this session, including the end of solitary confinement for pregnant women, the option for courts to waive fees for juveniles, and decreased fees for those who’ve been successful on parole. Medical marijuana proponents successfully fought for doctors to prescribe cannabis for any condition, and gun-rights advocates passed legislation that gives church leadership the option to allow those with a concealed carry permit to bring their weapons to church. Each parish will also be able to put to a vote approval of fantasy sports betting.

Additionally, the Legislature has taken the first step in potentially reforming Louisiana’s jungle primary elections. Sponsored by Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt of Slidell, the Legislature supported the formation of a task force to study the development of a closed party primary election system for federal, state and local elections. Made up of representatives from the Democratic and Republican parties, the Legislature, secretary of state and various others, the task force will report its findings by January 2021 for proposed implementation in 2022. Though the proposed study received near-unanimous support in the Senate, it broke predominantly along party lines in the House, with most Democrats in opposition. If ultimately adopted, this would end Louisiana’s top-two election system, which was spearheaded by Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1975.

Though the pandemic resulted in cross-partisan cooperation early in the session, deep fissures emerged as the governor extended the stay-home orders through mid-May. Despite facing the most Republican Legislature in Louisiana history, the conservative membership failed to muster the support to oppose the governor’s phased reopening plan.

Historically, Louisiana governors have exercised firm control over the Legislature, including securing their picks for leadership positions. The Legislature began exercising its independence in 2016 when the House selected its own speaker and continued that trend last month through the unusual measure of calling itself into special session. The Legislature, rather than the governor, set the session’s agenda, which includes proposals for business tax cuts. The mood of the special session will likely be more politically divisive as Louisiana confronts the economic fallout of the pandemic.