NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - When the gavel was sounded in the Louisiana House of Representatives on Monday plexiglass partitions were already in place to aid social distancing and some state lawmakers donned masks while others did not.
The session resumed after being paused for weeks due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. There was division among legislators over whether they should have been asked to return to the State Capitol building this week.
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder announced the number of lawmakers in attendance.
"Seventy-eight and a quorum,” said Schexnayder after he had removed his mask.
In all, there are 104 House members. There were 105 before Rep. Reggie Bagala died recently of the virus.
A specially designed mask was made in Bagala’s honor, said Schexnayder.
"Big John had these masks made in memory of him as well,” he said.
Rep. Gary Carter of New Orleans held a bottle of Clorox disinfectant as he moved about the House Chambers. Carter wore a mask and gloves.
Some state lawmakers, including the Legislative Black Caucus, objected to returning to the Capitol before Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order expires on May 15.
In a tweet days ago, Rep. Ted James, a Democrat representing Baton Rouge, said he would not attend the May 4 session. Further James wrote in the online post that he did not, “see myself going to the Capitol in the foreseeable future. There is no safe way to practice social distancing in a body of 104.”
Schexnayder told lawmakers who did show up that there is important legislative work that cannot be put off any longer.
“Now it's time for us to take on the economic crisis that is threatening our very way of life, the economic crisis threatens our livelihood and our friends and our families. And while some would argue that we should take more than roughly two weeks off to get started, I would simply reply we have work to do and we can't wait any longer,” stated Schexnayder.
On the other end of the State Capitol building the Senate convened hours later.
Senate President Page Cortez said committee hearings will operate differently because of the pandemic.
"We have a prompt start time and we have a hard adjournment so that we can wash down the committee rooms to bring in the next committee,” said Cortez.
The legislature must pass a budget to operate state government by June 30 for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. But state revenues from sales taxes, the oil and gas industry and some other sources have been significantly impacted by the health crisis.
The regular legislative session is scheduled to end on June 1, but a special session could be called to begin soon after if lawmakers fail to approve a budget before then.
Gov. Edwards held his coronavirus briefing at the Capitol instead of at an emergency operations venue.
"I know that they're doing what they can to work safely to pass the bills that are essential to keeping our state operating and that is important,” said Edwards.
Despite having less time to get things done during the session because of the coronavirus-related hiatus, some lawmakers are pushing for tort reform which they believe will drive down auto insurance rates in Louisiana.
According to Bankrate.com, Louisiana has the second highest auto insurance rates in the country. But some people are not convinced that changing civil litigation laws will reduce car insurance rates in the state.