Louisiana House GOP trying to yank governor's virus rules

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana House Republicans filed a petition Friday to revoke Gov. John Bel Edwards' coronavirus restrictions for a week, as lawmakers finished a special session in which they sought more power over the Democratic governor's emergency actions but appeared likely to see that effort vetoed.

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Republicans are invoking a never-before-used process outlined in state law that allows a majority of House lawmakers to nullify the governor's public health emergency declaration — and all restrictions tied to it — with a petition.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder said Edwards refused to address legislative concerns about his virus rules "in any substantive way.”

“The Legislature will make no apologies for simply standing up for the people we collectively represent,” Schexnayder, a Gonzales Republican, said in a statement. “The House has exhausted every available legislative remedy and has been left with no other option but to exercise its legislative right to terminate the governor’s emergency order."

The petition sent to Edwards was signed by 65 of the House's 68 Republicans. The governor lashed out at them as ignoring the risks of the virus outbreak for an “unconscionable” partisan political ploy.

“Burying heads in the sand and just pretending COVID isn’t a problem isn’t going to help. The virus doesn’t care that you’re tired of it," Edwards said. He added: “I apologize to no one for the decisions I have made.”

The issue almost certainly will be settled in court, since Edwards indicated no plans to end enforcement of his rules.

The Edwards administration argues the law allowing legislators in only one chamber to overturn a governor's emergency declaration is unconstitutional. That's a point Schexnayder himself has made, but he changed his position on advice of Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry.

Republicans say Edwards’ statewide mask mandate, business restrictions and crowd size limits at football games and other events are too harsh seven months after the coronavirus outbreak began in Louisiana. Edwards has loosened his restrictions several times, noting his rules are in line with guidance from the White House’s coronavirus task force and are less strict than what exists in many other states.

Democrats called the House Republicans' petition “dangerous, reckless and short-sighted.” House Democratic leader Sam Jenkins, of Shreveport, said Louisiana's economy cannot be sustained if people are getting sick, and he credited Edwards with making decisions based on science.

“A petition is not a cure,” Jenkins told his colleagues.

Three House Republicans didn't sign the petition: Reps. Barbara Freiberg of Baton Rouge, Stephanie Hilferty of New Orleans and Joseph Stagni of Kenner.

House Republicans’ action came as the Louisiana Legislature completed its special session a few days ahead of its Tuesday deadline. Senators were not involved in the petition, and GOP leaders there have raised questions about the petition’s implication on federal coronavirus financing.

Republican Senate President Page Cortez also diverged from Schexnayder's assessment of Edwards.

“I asked the governor to loosen restrictions on three different things, and each time he has worked with me to do that,” Cortez said.

Republican lawmakers convened the nearly four-week session themselves, their second special session this year, proposing to curb the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, high school sports and other activities. The House and Senate, however, were at odds over the constitutional limits of what they could do to insert themselves more heavily into emergency actions.

GOP lawmakers in the two chambers struck a deal Tuesday that would give them the ability to nullify individual pieces of a governor’s emergency order by a majority vote through mailed ballot, for any emergency declaration extended beyond 30 days.

Lawmakers seemed certain Edwards intends to veto the bill, and the governor suggested as much.

“There was nobody in leadership or elsewhere who expected that bill to be signed into law," Edwards said.

Beyond that debate, lawmakers agreed to keep unemployment benefits and tax rates on businesses that pay into the unemployment trust fund at their current levels, despite the bankruptcy of the fund.

But they didn’t find a long-term fix to refilling the fund that was drained as hundreds of thousands lost their jobs during the pandemic. Louisiana, like many other states, is borrowing money from the federal government to pay jobless benefits. Lawmakers steered $85 million to the trust fund to help pay for benefits, but that’s not nearly enough to reach solvency again.

The House and Senate passed new rounds of business tax breaks, including a multimillion-dollar severance tax cut for the oil industry, and backed a one-time November sales tax holiday aimed at helping people recover from the pandemic and this fall’s hurricanes. It’s unclear how they’ll cover the costs of the tax breaks.

They passed legislation to give more rights for family and clergy to visit patients in nursing homes, hospitals and other long-term care facilities during public health emergencies. They sent Edwards a bill that would give the House and Senate the ability to overrule a governor’s rejection of emergency elections plans.

Lawmakers added $20 million-plus in pet projects to the budget. And they steered $20 million in state surplus cash to jumpstart repairs to state-owned buildings damaged by hurricanes Laura and Delta, while they wait for insurance proceeds and federal rebuilding aid to arrive.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.