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Louisiana lawmakers plan special session for June

Louisiana’s Republican legislative leaders are planning a June special session, circulating a petition Friday to set a lengthy agenda that would allow debate on the budget, taxes, fantasy sports betting and the coronavirus response.

It will be only the second time in state history that lawmakers have called themselves into a special session, rather than a governor.

The special session will start immediately after the regular session ends on the evening of June 1 and could run the entire month, according to the document signed by the House and Senate’s top-ranking leaders, including Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder.

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Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said he knew lawmakers planned to convene a special session. He didn’t object, though he questioned the lengthy agenda.

The proposed agenda being circulated among members includes 41 items, though it still could change before the official agenda is released.

On the list are completion of work on next year’s budget, the spending of federal coronavirus aid and the expansion of tax break programs that lawmakers say would help virus-impacted businesses. Also included are the setting of tax rates for legalized fantasy sports betting, licensing requirements for businesses and college fees.

“There’s a lot of important work left to do to help families and small businesses who are struggling to recover from the COVID shutdown,” Senate GOP leader Sharon Hewitt said in a statement.

Several Democratic lawmakers complained they weren’t consulted on the plans. Rep. Malinda White, a Democrat from Bogalusa, read the list on the House floor Friday afternoon, saying she just learned the contents minutes earlier and wanted to make sure everyone else was informed.

Traditionally in Louisiana, a governor calls special sessions, setting the timelines and agendas, though legislators can convene one with a written petition of the majority of the elected members.

With a Democratic governor and majority-Republican House and Senate, lawmakers have more stridently asserted their constitutional independence. GOP House and Senate leaders want to convene a session where they set the agenda.

The last time lawmakers called themselves into a special session was in 2011, to redraw the state’s political district lines. At the time, then-House Clerk Alfred “Butch” Speer said lawmakers had never previously called their own session since a constitutional provision in 1954 allowed them to do so.

“It doesn’t cause me any problems that they’re calling themselves back into session. That’s something that the constitution gives them the authority to do,” said Edwards, a former state House member.

But he said the 41-item agenda seemed “problematic.”

“It’ll operate more as a general session rather than a concentrated special session where we’re focusing on those things that absolutely have to get done,” Edwards said. “It’s unfortunate that they weren’t able to use the time that they’ve had from May 4 through June 1 to get done the essential work of the state of Louisiana, but let’s hope they can do it in the time that they’ve given themselves” through June.

Although legislative leaders initially talked of plans to complete the budget in the regular session, they changed their tone as the weeks moved on, citing the financial uncertainty caused by the virus outbreak.

Rep. Stuart Bishop, the Lafayette Republican who heads the House tax committee, said there’s too little time remaining to complete a multibillion-dollar set of spending plans.

“We are doing an injustice to this body and to the people of Louisiana if we just ram it through in one week,” he said.

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