The third pandemic session of the year has come down to negotiations between the chambers as lawmakers decide how they want to address growing conservative anxiety over Gov. John Bel Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions.
In many ways, negotiations have just now started. Generally speaking, leading Senate Republicans have carved out a position to preserve the fundamental idea of a separation of powers. Senators acted early to get behind SB29 by Senate President Page Cortez, which originally instructed the governor to give lawmakers an early warning and a review period for emergency orders—and nothing more.
That framework wasn’t enough for the House, though, which has more than a half dozen other measures moving through the legislative process that make changes to the executive branch’s ability to issue or enforce emergency orders. Few were surprised when the Cortez bill was amended by the House to give lawmakers direct input into whether gubernatorial orders can be renewed or expanded.
Edwards probably wasn’t impressed much by the House’s position and will surely veto any legislation that infringes upon his ability to issue emergency orders and his administration’s duty to uphold those guidelines and rules. This reality puts conservatives in a pickle since none of their proposals has a veto-proof majority of support inside the rails.
One way around this challenge is a suspension resolution, which doesn’t require gubernatorial approval and can be enacted temporarily for roughly a year or less. For example, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder has filed HCR9 to suspend Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions for a one-month period when the special session adjoins Oct. 27.
House and Senate members are clearly weaving a patchwork of suspension resolutions to attack the special session’s core issues. HCR13 by Rep. Blake Miguez passed the House Commerce Committee on Monday and suspends the ability of the state fire marshal to enforce the current emergency orders. HCR8 by Rep. Phillip DeVillier will be heard Thursday by the House Judiciary Committee and would do the same to the alcohol and tobacco control commissioner.
The latest tool in the toolbox was introduced Monday by Cortez. The president’s SCR9 would suspend the unemployment insurance solvency tax from being implemented on business when the state’s unemployment trust fund dries up. While not directly related to the governor’s emergency orders this year, the state of unemployment benefits is a serious challenge facing the state and was included on the special session call.
There are a lot of moving pieces here. Lawmakers may advance resolutions to use as leverage in negotiations with the administration or as backups to any bills that might be vetoed. We could even see several different proposals on the executive authority issue gain approval from the Legislature—there’s no reason why Schexnayder’s suspension resolution and the Cortez bill couldn’t pass the finish line together.
The stakes are rather high on these topics and legal challenges are expected for anything that escapes this special session. Conservative lawmakers and their boosters are aware of the possibility and precautions are being taken. When Miguez passed his HCR13 on Monday, a representative from the office of Attorney General Jeff Landry appeared at the committee hearing to speak to legislative intent and legal justification, points which were echoed by the legislative author.
A casual read of special session coverage so far reveals most reporters lead with the same storyline—that the divide between the executive branch and legislative branch is deepening and becoming increasingly bitter when it comes to the issue of control. The media narrative, for now, is centering on power, as in who wants it and who has it in 2020.
In fact, day one headlines described the ongoing special session as a “power struggle,” “political tug-of-war” and “power debate.” Based on the way the second week of the special session is unfolding, those same headlines will probably still be applicable as lawmakers reach a conclusion (whatever that looks like) later this month.