Legislature starts as protests increase
After a weekend that started with a show of American strength and unity with B-52 flybys, Saturday ended with the largest display of disunity so far against the quarantine as nearly 300 shouted at Louisiana’s Executive Mansion for Governor John Bel Edwards to reopen business immediately. Monday morning on WWL Newsradio in New Orleans, Jefferson Parish Councilmember Jennifer Van Vrancken said her district, one of the hottest of the original COVID hotspots, was now ready to reopen. “I know the Governor is thinking of things statewide,” she said, “but we’re not going to Shreveport or Monroe on an average weekend. Jefferson is ready to reopen. We are hoping the governor will let regions of the state get back to business.”
So far, the governor has said it’s all or nothing in reopening the state. Before his first press conference in the Capitol since March, Governor Edwards said he joined nearly every other governor on a conference call with Vice President Mike Pence. They discussed how to achieve the White House mandate of 14-straight days of declining COVID cases. Nine of those governors are reopening their states without having met that criteria.
“Look,” answered Governor Edwards, “I don’t second guess that other governors do. They have their own considerations. Here in Louisiana, to the extent that we can, we’re going to abide by the guidelines [from the Trump administration and CDC] because we think they make sense.”
Downstairs in the House and Senate, some lawmakers don’t agree. Under protest from many of their colleagues, Senate President Paige Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder forced reconvening. They said they have to hammer out a budget in just four weeks. Those who protested said they feared for their health after COVID took the life of Rep. Reggie Bagala of Lafourche Parish last month. Baton Rouge Representative Ted James also was hospitalized for days, and even Senate President Cortez himself took days to recover from COVID-19.
Schexnayder and Cortez say the governor did not include them in his decision to extend the stay-at-home order to May 15. Edwards says he did conference with the two and told them he was following guidance from President Trump to secure the $1.8 billion in federal aid.
Many returning legislatures are likewise meeting with disharmony. In Michigan, frustration over the quarantine spilled into the Michigan Senate Thursday where some rioters brandished assault rifles, causing senators to scramble for bulletproof vests.
Governor Edwards says no provision to beef up capitol security has been made or is necessary. “I don’t think Louisianans will do that,” he said, reiterating that if Louisiana experiences any violence or any spike in COVID cases, that news would streak across the nation and kill Louisiana tourism. In 2018, over 51 million visitors spent $19 billion in Louisiana, according to Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser. Those tourists paid almost $2 billion in state and local taxes.
“And I would remind you,” continued the governor, “that we did not at the outset close a lot of the things in Louisiana that were closed elsewhere. I read as other states come back online that they are restarting construction. Well, we never closed construction. They’re opening up manufacturing. We never closed manufacturing. Every time CISA, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, has revised their guidelines to include more areas as critical infrastructure, we have embraced that completely. So we’re on our third set of critical infrastructure now. And yet, we’ve been able to reduce our [COVID] case growth and our numbers in a way that, quite frankly, is as impressive as any place in the country.”
The 2020 Louisiana Legislative session closes June 1 but most expect at least one special session during summer. Louisiana’s fiscal year ends June 30. If a budget is not passed by then, state government could freeze, said the governor. Adding to the tension, losses in state revenue from the Coronavirus shutdown combined with plummeting oil prices range from $500 million to a possible drop of $1 billion.