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Louisiana Republican legislators and Democratic governor hope to find common ground

February 11, 2020
Originally posted on The Center Square

Though they hold large Republican majorities, Louisiana legislative leaders on Tuesday pledged to address difficult issues with legislation the Democratic governor would be willing to sign.

Republicans hold a veto-proof majority in the state Senate and are only two seats short of a two-thirds majority in the House.

“If we put ourselves in a position on all these bills to have to override vetoes, that’s not a good posture to put yourself in,” Senate President Page Cortez said.

Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder spoke at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry’s annual meeting. Tort reform is at the top of LABI’s agenda this year, and both legislators said it was their priority as well.

Stephen Waguespack, LABI’s president and CEO, said some people have told him tort reform has little chance because Gov. John Bel Edwards, an attorney by trade, will veto whatever the legislature passes.

“I think he’s going to keep an open mind on this,” Waguespack said of the governor.

An “omnibus” tort reform bill that supporters said could lead to lower auto insurance rates passed the House last year but died in the Senate.

The Senate is likely to be more conservative this year, and a similar bill has been proposed.

“The Senate wasn’t wired the same way last year,” Cortez said.

Schexnayder added that if the legislature could get a bill to the governor’s desk, Edwards would hear from constituents who want change, just like legislators do.

Edwards, speaking later in the day at the same event and to reporters after his speech, echoed the legislators’ call for cooperation. He said there was potential to find common ground, even on contentious issues like tort reform.

LABI is a conservative business group and its biggest backers include prominent Republican activists such as Cajun Industries founder Lane Grigsby, who was a prominent supporter of businessman Eddie Rispone’s run for governor against Edwards. During his speech, Edwards stressed that the campaign was over and it was time to govern.

“If we take extreme partisanship off the table, then there’s a seat at the table for everyone,” Edwards said.

Louisiana currently does not have an official revenue forecast on which to base an official budget. Schexnayder and Cortez have declined to accept a forecast from either of the state government’s top economists, and Jay Dardenne, Edwards’ commissioner of administration, rejected a compromise estimate Schexnayder offered.

Cortez said after Tuesday’s panel that he expected the Revenue Estimating Conference to meet and agree to a revenue forecast by early April. The legislative session starts March 9.

Cortez noted that 0.45 percent of the state sales tax is scheduled to expire after the current term, and said lawmakers don’t want to leave the next class of legislators with a “fiscal cliff.” In the meantime, he said he wanted to explore spending more general fund dollars on roads and bridges rather than relying on surplus dollars or the gas tax that hasn’t been raised in decades.

Schexnayder owns and operates an automotive repair company, while Cortez is in the furniture business. Both said they would support creating a single centralized sales collector for the state, which the governor opposes, saying the change would make it easier to collect internet sales tax.