'Tort reform' ends regular session, spills over to special session – and the budget

John Dupont
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzalez

BATON ROUGE – The regular session ended Monday and led to the immediate start of a special session for Louisiana lawmakers after hotly contested tort reform bill and little mention of the budget.

Legislators ended their regular session, which lasted only 28 days due to the coronavirus that put it on hold a week after it started and remained shut until May 4.

“We have a significant amount of work left to do for our families, for our friends and our business leaders,” said Speaker of the House Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales.

“Tort reform,” which limits the amount of damages a victim can seek in a direct suit against an auto insurance company, passed the House on a 66-31 vote in the last bill before the session ended.

Proponents said the bill would lower the state’s auto insurance rates, which rank second highest in the nation. Opponents argue that it would block plaintiffs from receiving money they need for their medical bills and would not guarantee lower premiums.

Lawmakers now face the task of how to pass a $30 billion budget that is $900 million short.

The legislature could have accomplished more had focus remained on the budget, according to Rep. Chad Brown, D-Plaquemine.

“I’ve been disappointed in the number of bills we took up and thought we should’ve focused more on money bills, virus-related bills and bills that were truly essentials,” he said. “We had a number of bills that came through during the compressed session we had, and the shortened committee meetings, I’ve seen a lack of debate, as opposed to recent years I’ve been a member.”

Brown fears the lack of discussion during the abbreviated regular session may have set a bad example for freshman lawmakers, who may consider the process part of the norm.

“We’ve seen only limited debate and not enough interested parties,” Brown said. “Live testimony is of the key parts of the legislature, and we just haven’t been able to have as much of that as we normally would.”

Lawmakers will face another pitfall off a Republican-led bill that passed the House, which will dole out $300 million in small business grants from the $811 million in COVID-19 relief money that Gov. John Bel Edwards wanted to funnel down to local government.

The other $511 million will pay back municipalities for their virus spending.

A budget compromise in the special session will likely figure as only a temporary fix, Brown said.

He expects Gov. Edwards to summon the lawmakers back to Baton Rouge this fall or at the mid-year to adjust the budget based on new revenue estimates.

“There’s a certain percentage of unknowns,” he said. “Revenue collection and sales taxes, and a lot of that will depend on guidance from the federal government on how we can use the CARES Act.”

Brown fears that the push for tax cuts by Republican lawmakers will create a much bigger problem for the state.

“That sounds good, and everyone loves to cut taxes and do things we believe would stimulate the economy, but we’re not in a point that we can do it,’ he said. “I believe some of it is political posturing, and I don’t want to revisit past years when we dug ourselves deeper in the hole. Now is not the time to be irresponsible.”