Louisiana’s Legislature begins its 2020 Regular Session Monday with a new term and new faces to debate everything from the budget to the death penalty.
The combination of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Republican-dominated Legislature is sure to create sparks, but the session won’t be without some common ground.
Following are four things to watch as the Legislature convenes at noon Monday:
Louisiana’s popular college scholarship program TOPS, safety-net hospitals and higher education institutions are safe from budget cuts in the coming year.
But budget stability doesn’t mean there won’t be controversies.
In fact, sometimes having a surplus is almost as difficult as a shortfall because of the people and agencies competing for the increased funds.
That’s already been the case after members of the Revenue Estimating Conference last month refused to recognize an increase in projected revenue recommended by state economists to plug into next year’s budget.
Some House members are saying the budget crafted by the Appropriations Committee will ultimately only spend 98% in an effort to reduce government growth.
And there’s a question about whether teachers can expect another raise after securing their first one in a decade this school year. Edwards initially didn’t specify teacher raises in his proposed budget, but backtracked after a backlash from educators.
“Tort reform” will take center stage in the 2020 Regular Session, but Republicans and Democrats are in different camps when it comes to what they believe will reduce commercial and individual insurance rates in Louisiana, especially auto insurance rates, which are among the nation’s highest.
Republicans have said changes to civil litigation law are their top priority, as have business groups like the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
Among the measures filed by Republicans: a bill that would reduce the jury trial threshold from $50,000 to $5,000; and a bill to allow juries to know whether someone who has filed a lawsuit following an auto accident was wearing a seat belt, something prohibited now.
Many Democrats claim those bills and others cater to business while reducing protections for individuals with no guarantee they would trigger lower rates.
They are instead focused on measures they believe would lower rates for individuals like requiring insurance companies to base rates on driving records rather than other factors like marital status and increasing rate-setting transparency.
Edwards is supporting the latter.
It appears Edwards and the Republican-controlled Legislature have found common ground on at least one issue – spending more on early childhood education.
But other priorities favored by the governor like establishing a state minimum wage higher than the federal requirement of $7.25 an hour and legislation designed to narrow the pay gap between men and women are likely to get push back.
Edwards tried and failed to pass minimum wage and equal pay measures in each year of his first term to no avail. And powerful business groups continue to oppose the measures.
The governor has said previous failures won’t deter him from trying again.
“I will continue to fight for an increase in the minimum wage — $7.25 is not a meaningful wage,” he said. “And we have the largest gender pay gap in the country — that offends me. I’m going to continue to work toward that.”
No confirmed cases of the coronavirus have been reported in Louisiana, but Edwards said this week infections here are inevitable.
“While we currently do not have any confirmed cases of coronavirus in Louisiana, we do anticipate that we will in the future,” Edwards said.
So Edwards has formed a coronavirus task force and met with his Unified Command Group to discuss preparations already made and a plan for response if infections happen here.
He described the preparations as similar to an approaching hurricane.
If cases continue to ramp up in the United States and there’s an outbreak in Louisiana, the Legislature will also become more engaged.
Public health officials in Washington state, where there have been six coronavirus deaths, have asked the Legislature there to appropriate $100 million to respond to the outbreak.
The topic is likely to come up at the joint Louisiana House Health and Welfare and House Select Homeland Security Committee meeting at 11 a.m. Wednesday.