Legislative Roundup: Partial decriminalization of marijuana possession; environmental self-audits; abortion reporting; and more

Louisiana House of Representatives
The House meets during the waning days of the 2021 regular session. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Senate advances measure partially decriminalizing marijuana possession

By the barest of margins and after some contentious debate, the Senate voted 20-17 Monday morning to drop jail time and reduce the fine for possession of less than 14 grams of marijuana from $300 to $100. 

The bill, HB652 by Rep. Cedric Glover, D-Shreveport, was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, who fielded some verbal opposition from senators who argued this is just a first step toward total decriminalization.

“This is a common-sense approach to a problem that is plaguing the whole state,” Luneau told them. “Sometimes we just have to say, this isn’t working, let’s use common sense and try something else. This is not decriminalization. It’s just a new approach.”

Glover’s bill retains the $500 fine for possession of more than 14 grams but eliminates jail time.

Twenty votes is the bare minimum required for a bill to pass in the 39-member Senate.

Senate President Page Cortez was among the 17 nay votes, Sen. Gerald Boudreaux voted for it, and Sen. Bob Hensgens, whose district overlaps Lafayette and Vermilion parishes, was absent. The four dissenters included two Democrats and two Republicans.

The bill passed the House last month 68-25, with 12 members abstaining, among them Republican Reps. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, and Beau Beaullieu, whose district includes southern Lafayette Parish. The other five members representing parts of Lafayette Parish all voted for it.

Coussan’s ‘self-audit’ bill clears Senate with amendments

The bill by Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan that would allow oil, gas and chemical companies to conduct their own environmental audits for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality received overwhelming passage in the Senate Monday morning, but it goes back to the House with Senate committee amendments.

The vote was 33-4. Two of Lafayette Parish’s three senators voted for it, Republican Senate President Page Cortez and Democrat Gerald Boudreaux, voted for it. Republican Bob Hensgens was absent. The four dissenters included two Republicans and two Democrats.

Before HB72 cleared the House 87-7 last month, Coussan agreed to an amendment excluding several types of violations from the self-audit program. Among them are: violations that result in serious actual harm to the environment, that may present an imminent or substantial endangerment to public health or the environment, that are discovered by the DEQ prior to the written disclosure of the violation to the department, and “violations detected through monitoring, sampling, or auditing procedures that are required by statute.”

The Senate Environmental Quality Committee added five amendments, including one requiring that after any final decision by the DEQ on a self-audit, it would be a public record and posted on the DEQ’s website.

Another amendment would suspend all claims for environmental violations once a company is accepted into the voluntary self-audit program, until the DEQ makes a final decision or for a period of two years, whichever comes first. 

It is now up to Coussan whether to accept the Senate amendments and ask the House to go along. He has little choice with the end of the session looming in three days.

Senate OKs tax exemption for feminine hygiene products, diapers

By a vote of 28-1, with an unusually large number of abstentions, the Senate on Monday afternoon approved HB7 by Rep. Aimee Adatto Freeman, D-New Orleans, exempting feminine hygiene products from the state sales tax.

The bill passed the House 62-32 on May 25. It was a ticklish issue, with the legislators forced to choose between arguments for fairness or fiscal responsibility as the Legislature is struggling to make budgetary ends meet. According to the note from the Legislative Fiscal Office, it will represent a loss to the general fund of $11.1 million when it takes effect in the 2022/2023 fiscal year and $43.3 million over four years. 

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette, both voted for it. Sen. Bob Hensgens, R-Lafayette, was among those absent or abstaining. Six of the 10 recorded as absent on HB7, including Hensgens, were recorded voting on the following bill on the daily digest.

Emerson’s abortion reporting bill wins Senate approval

After being deferred for a day by a procedural objection Sunday, HB423, which mandates reports for treatments for abortion complications, passed the Senate 37-1 Monday afternoon.

HB423, by Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, will require hospitals to compile reports on treatments for abortion complications and submit them to the Department of Health each quarter. It also requires LDH to provide to the Department of Children and Family Services and the attorney general copies of “all abortion reports” involving minor women under the age of 13.

It further requires LDH and the State Board of Medical Examiners to “jointly promulgate rules regarding the electronic coding, reporting, and tracking of complications after any abortion that is treated at any hospital.” 

Sen. Gerald Boudreax, R-Lafayette, added four floor amendments, including one exempting these reports from the Public Records Act and one stipulating that the quarterly reports include the names and addresses of the abortion facility and the hospital providing post-abortion treatment, and the nature of the abortion complication.

The amended bill now goes back to the House, which must concur in the amendments or reject them.

House passes Senate bill on athletes’ compensation for endorsements

The House gave approval to another thorny contemporary concept, granting college athletes the right to receive compensation for their names, images or likenesses.

After some spirited debate, the House passed an amended version of SB60 by Sen. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, 88-7.

“We all love Louisiana, we all love our schools, we all love to beat our neighbors,” quipped Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, the House sponsor. “This is where the country is headed.”

All seven representatives from Lafayette Parish voted for it.

It passed the Senate last month 32-0. The House Education Committee added an amendment stipulating that an educational institution or an organization affiliated with it, presumably aimed at alumni booster clubs, are not allowed to themselves to pay the athletes for their names, images or likenesses. The amended version now returns to the Senate for concurrence. 

Vaccine ‘anti-discrimination’ bill passes Senate

The controversial bill to ban perceived discrimination against people who decline to be vaccinated for COVID-19 passed the Senate Monday afternoon 26-10.

HB498 by Rep. Kathy Edmonston, R-Gonzales, passed 26-10, but not without some sharp questioning.

After the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Stewart Cathey, R-Monroe, explained the bill’s purpose, Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, challenged him. “How would we know that?” she asked about the discrimination.

After some hesitation, Cathey replied, “That’s a good question.” Barrow warned that the bill could have “unintended consequences”.