(The Center Square) – Though there was no state budget to approve, Louisiana legislators still managed to create some drama during the closing moments of the regular session Monday.
When the session expired at 6 p.m., legislators began a special session in which they will consider “must pass” spending bills. The state constitution requires approval of a balanced budget before the fiscal year begins July 1.
Lawmakers voted to make several changes to the state’s legal system in hopes of lowering auto insurance rates. A few amendments were approved on Monday, but not enough to gain the support of Gov. John Bel Edwards, who may consider a veto. While the bill passed with veto-proof majorities the first time through the process, the final version fell short of a two-thirds margin in the House of Representatives.
Legislators also voted to use $300 million of the federal COVID-19 relief money that otherwise would go to local governments for a fund to help small businesses affected by the pandemic’s fallout. An effort to prevent state government from spending unclaimed property dollars failed in the Senate.
As amended, the hotly debated tort reform bill would lower the state’s threshold to request a jury trial in injury cases from $50,000, the highest in the nation, to $10,000. The threshold was $5,000 in the original version.
The bill calls for all auto insurers to lower their rates at least 10 percent, unless they can convince the insurance commissioner that they can’t afford to do so. Commercial insurers were not included in the original version of that mandate.
The tort bill calls for injured parties to recover what they or their insurer actually paid for the medical services they received, not the “sticker price" of the procedures. However, the bill was amended to mandate that, on top of their actual medical costs, the injured person also could recover the amount they paid in health insurance premiums over the year before the accident plus half of that total.
Along with the tort bill, Edwards also is skeptical about using federal CARES Act dollars to create the $300 million business fund. Senate President Page Cortez said he was confident Edwards would sign the bill, noting that it makes other supplemental appropriations the governor might not want to hold up.
Several Democrats said they wanted to first ensure local government entities are fully reimbursed for their pandemic-related expenses, which was the stated purpose of that element of the federal legislation. But supporters say companies that were forced to shut down or limit operations need immediate relief, and helping those businesses survive will benefit local tax bases over the long term.
Louisiana companies with 50 or fewer employees that had normal business operations interrupted by the pandemic are eligible. State Treasurer John Schroder will set up the program under the oversight of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.
“No money will go out without the authority of the legislature,” Cortez said.