As Gov. John Bel Edwards endorsed a sweeping proclamation last week that temporarily shuttered public schools and postponed elections, and as legislators voted to pause their ongoing regular session, government relations professionals and lobbyists—just like the rest of us—were left wondering what comes next.
In the age of COVID-19, it’s an appropriate use of one’s time. While the general public may have a low opinion of those in the GR (government relations) trade, according to polling that has journalists residing roughly in the same neighborhood of perception, the truth is you probably have a lobbyist representing you in Baton Rouge.
Nurses, convenience store owners, Catholic bishops, fishermen, pipe fitters, prisoners, the blind, teachers and, yes, even reporters have associations or lobbyists representing their interests at the Capitol. Lobbyists cut checks for campaigns, facilitate the distribution of information and generally have tremendous influence over the Legislature. Like any other profession there are upstanding folks and bad apples alike.
That said, the political reality is that GR professionals, particularly those who have been around a while and maintain a big book of business, help make the Capitol tick. So I conducted eight interviews with those who fit into this category and largely focused on a single question: What are you telling your clients? (If you really want the political lowdown on the regular session, this group is an excellent starting point.)
These contract lobbyists, association directors and attorneys from firms large and small, all speaking on background and not for direct attribution, agreed that COVID-19 seems positioned to upend the regular session as we know it, which in truth has already happened. Lawmakers voted to take a break from legislative action until March 31, but implemented stringent guidelines before doing so that could lead to a new sort of culture at the Capitol.
Everyone who enters the Capitol building now must have their temperature checked, which in turn gets them a sticker proving as much. Access to committee rooms and the House and Senate chambers has been restricted; yellow caution tape has been used to seal chairs so every visitor has a space dividing them.
Despite the pause in the session and the strict standards implemented, almost every lobbyist interviewed made a similar observation—that the regular session wouldn’t truly come to an end, that it would merely be replaced by a shadow session where the same issues and decisions would be discussed behind closed doors, over the phone and via text. “That’s actually the time our GR clients need us most,” said an attorney.
An association director added that the session was quickly becoming the least of his membership’s worries. “While we may not be at the Capitol in our usual session roles, a lot of us are going to have to start worrying about new emergency rules and regulations on the parish and municipal levels. Those changes are happening right now and it takes some time and effort to figure what it all means.”
While others may have experienced the same, only one lobbyist offered anecdotes about clients urging safety over politics. But that caution will only go so far if lawmakers decide to continue meeting as the state braces for what is supposed to be the peak of this health care emergency. “I have a few clients who quarantined and others who have travel bans or just personally are not choosing to travel,” said a longtime lobbyist. “So that means I’ll be the one testifying.”
What the legislative process looks like moving forward is an unknown. Another long recess is completely possible, some say, or even an early adjournment depending on the crisis—in concert, of course, with the rapid passage of continuation or contingency budgets and emergency legislation.
In short, GR pros are ready for anything. “This situation is very fluid and I’m trying to stress that as I’m getting questions and calls,” said another lobbyist. “I’m telling them that the agendas have been loaded up (for the late March return) and we don’t want to be caught with our pants down. So the work continues.”
When the governor signed his first proclamation on COVID-19, the document included this language: “The Louisiana Legislature is hereby requested to consider a suspension resolution which would allow for the suspension of any legal requirements to ensure the continued operation of state and local government, including such legal issues as legal deadlines and quorum requirements for open meetings.”
How the Legislature ultimately interprets that language should become clearer sooner rather than later. “I’m confident that any changes to open meetings will be minimal if at all,” House Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, R-Houma, said in a tweet last week after questions were raised by First Amendment attorney Scott Sternberg, general counsel to the Louisiana Press Association.
In the same vein, the issues that were supposed to define the regular session—like bills addressing coastal lawsuits, tort reform, insurance rates and land use—are shifting as well. “It’s difficult to see how they tackle these big, controversial bills while restricting access and making common sense decisions about the health of lawmakers,” said a seasoned lobbyist. “If tort reform and coastal lawsuits (legislation) fizzle out, it won’t be for long. Those issues will be back, maybe in a general, broadly drawn special session. Who knows? Honestly, I don’t.”