Back in session? Monday’s planned return leaves La. lawmakers mixed

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BATON ROUGE, La. (WVLA/WGMB) — While Gov. John Bel Edwards has extended Louisiana’s stay-at-home order through May 15, the state’s legislative leaders want to resume spending talks earlier than that. And not everyone agrees with it.

The Legislature has largely halted its work since mid-March, just a week into its annual session, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder intend to reopen their chambers Monday — which Rep. Ted James argues is too soon.

“We are, in essence, defying the order,” said James, a Baton Rouge Democrat hospitalized in early April with coronavirus-related pneumonia. “The more people we put in that [State Capitol] building — that very old building with poor ventilation — we’re putting more people at risk.”

James is not alone in his concern, after state Rep. Reggie Bagala died of coronavirus complications earlier this month. In a letter Tuesday, the Legislature’s Democratic brass asked Republicans Cortez and Schexnayder to reconsider their resumption.

“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,” Reps. Jimmy Harris and Sam Jenkins and state Sen. Troy Carter wrote.

Harris, Jenkins and Carter — who lead the Senate Democratic Caucus, Legislative Black Caucus and House Democratic Caucus, respectively — have suggested state lawmakers instead return May 15.

“Mixed messages from public office counters our ability to truly recover, economically and physically,” they wrote.

Louisiana’s constitution requires the Legislature to pass spending bills by June 30 each year — in person — or face a state government shutdown. Gov. Edwards maintains Schexnayder and Cortez have final say on when members reconvene.

“I happen to believe the Legislature is like essential infrastructure,” the governor told reporters this past Monday.

But on non-budget items, state law isn’t as strict.

“The only thing that must be done are the money bills,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, Edwards’ chief budget adviser, said in an interview Wednesday. “Beyond that, nothing absolutely has to be done.”

It’s still unclear what appetite lawmakers will have for non-budget bills this spring. Lawmakers previously intended to consider hundreds of proposals regarding criminal justice, insurance and education, among other issues.

Cortez, who recovered from COVID-19 last month, said he does not fault legislators hesitant to return to the State Capitol. For precaution, House and Senate leaders plan to limit use of paper and conference rooms, keep lawmakers at distances, and wipe desks often. State Fire Marshal’s officers have been taking temperatures of building visitors.

“This virus is going to be around another year or longer,” Cortez told The Advocate this week. “The virus isn’t going away in June. It is not going away in August. But we still have to have a budget by June 30.”

James says the earliest he would return to the State Capitol is June — and likely in a limited capacity, given the virus’ continued spread.

“Take this thing seriously,” he said. “Take the precautions to protect yourself and protect your neighbors.”

Louisiana’s legislative session, initially planned to last roughly three months, must end by June 1. Completing any undone budget business between then and June 30 would require a special session.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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