BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - In a state reshaped by the coronavirus pandemic, Louisiana lawmakers restart their regular legislative session Monday grappling with new budget troubles, squabbling over what bills should take priority and feuding over whether they should be returning at all.
Republicans irritated by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' decision to extend Louisiana's stay-at-home order through May 15 are ready to return for the final four weeks of a session that began March 9 - the same day Louisiana saw its first positive coronavirus test. Lawmakers managed only a few days of work before the outbreak forced a temporary adjournment.
"We have a duty to come back and take care of the business that we were elected to take care of," said House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, an Ascension Parish Republican, at a news conference Thursday with Senate President Page Cortez.
Democrats say it's unsafe to bring 143 lawmakers, their staff, lobbyists and the public back in a state that has been one of the nation's hot spots for the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus.
More than 29,000 people in Louisiana have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 1,969 people have died, according to state health department data released Sunday. The true number of infections is thought to be far higher.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For others, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
Leaders of the Senate and House Democratic caucuses and the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus wrote to Cortez and Schexnayder, saying lawmakers shouldn't return until mid-May.
"It could be a devastating blow to the strides made and to the safety of our residents, our staff and members if we returned to business as usually prematurely," wrote Sen. Troy Carter of New Orleans, Rep. Sam Jenkins of Shreveport and Sen. Jimmy Harris of New Orleans.
Edwards said the Legislature is an "essential" business and its leaders should decide their timeline.
One House member, Republican Rep. Reggie Bagala of Lafourche Parish, died from COVID-19. Democratic Rep. Ted James of Baton Rouge was hospitalized for days. Cortez had a minor bout with the virus and recovered, drawing criticism because he waited a month before telling his colleagues.
James announced on Twitter he wouldn't attend the session Monday "and do not see myself going to the Capitol in the foreseeable future." He called the return irresponsible and said "there is no safe way to practice social distancing."
Cortez and Schexnayder said they must craft a budget, work on virus response legislation and assist with the economic recovery. With a session that must end June 1, they said they need the available days to stagger committee hearings and lessen building traffic. They pledged to take intense cleaning and protective measures.
"You're going to be safer at the Capitol than you would (be) at the local grocery store," said Cortez, a Lafayette Republican.
Committee meetings will be spread across hearing rooms. Plexiglass partitions were installed in the House chamber between seats. Temperatures are taken to enter the building. Both the House and Senate are offering lawmakers, staff and the public masks, gloves and sanitizer.
But while masks are "encouraged," no one is required to wear one.
The House and Senate's GOP leaders whittled the list of bills for debate to about one-third of what lawmakers introduced. But that list is drawing complaints from Democrats who object to Republicans including "tort reform" legislation to rewrite civil litigation laws and lessen damage claims against businesses.
A must-do item is the budget for the financial year beginning July 1.
Legislative leaders expect a large financial gap from widespread unemployment and shuttered businesses forcing down tax collections and the steep decline in oil prices. They cite ranges of $500 million to $1 billion less in state funding predicted for next year.
Louisiana's income forecasting panel will meet May 11 to try to calculate the scope of the problem, Cortez and Schexnayder said. Lawmakers say they'll need one, possibly two, special sessions this year to adjust the budget as the virus impact becomes clearer - and to deal with the economic fallout from the outbreak. Congressional aid can't be used to offset lost tax revenue.
Meanwhile, some conservative Republicans angered by Edwards' two-week extension of his stay-at-home order are proposing to use an extraordinary legal maneuver that would allow them to override the governor's disaster orders. Cortez and Schexnayder said they don't support the effort because it could cost the state hundreds of millions in lost federal aid. Edwards called it a "completely irresponsible and nonsensical" idea.
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