Edwards calls GOP efforts to yank virus rules ‘reckless, irresponsible, and unconscionable’

Health

BATON ROUGE, La. (KTAL/AP) – Gov. John Bel Edwards is calling efforts reportedly underway by GOP lawmakers to get rid of his emergency coronavirus orders “reckless, irresponsible, and unconscionable.”

In a media briefing Friday afternoon following the wrap-up of the state’s second special legislative session this year, Edwards said he had not yet seen the petition to revoke his coronavirus restrictions but noted that if they have gathered the 53 signatures required, it would have to include the names of those who he says have said publicly and some who told him privately that it is a “terrible idea.”

The governor pointed to charts that show the spread of the coronavirus and hospitalizations in Louisiana slowing and stabilizing in direct correlation to his mask mandate and the extension of Phase 2. He also emphasized that – in spite of the latest efforts to curb his emergency powers – Phase 3 remains in effect.

“I will surrender none of the authority that I have under the constitution and laws of this state,” Edwards said in what was one of his most forceful repudiations yet of Republican efforts to remove his emergency powers. He listed a number of ways ending the state’s public health emergency would be illogical and ill-advised, including the loss of federal disaster aid and authorization for the National Guard to assist in disaster response.

“We would be the only state in the nation without a public health emergency in place,” Edwards said, adding that many of the laws that were put into place during the session that just ended would not work because they’re all tied to the existence of a public health emergency. Plus, he argued, such emergencies cannot be “managed by committee.”

“It will not work. I know how quickly decisions have to be made,” Edwards said. “These are people who don’t even believe an emergency exists.”

He also said businesses in Louisiana are “as much or more open” than businesses in neighboring states, noting that only bars in parishes with more than 10-percent positivity remain closed under the current orders. How many restaurants do you go to

“Burying heads in the sand and pretending COVID isn’t a problem just isn’t going to help. The virus doesn’t care that you’re tired of it. It doesn’t care that you don’t care. It just doesn’t work like that.”

When asked whether he will take the battle to the courts, Edwards indicated he could, but that those individuals could also remove their names from the petition if they believe it is a bad idea.

The third legislative session of the year wrapped up Friday, a few days ahead of its Tuesday deadline. A bill was passed during the session that would give more power over the Democratic governor’s emergency actions but it appeared likely that Edwards would veto.

During Friday’s briefing, Edwards said none of the bills passed during the session had reached his desk and that he could not say which ones would be signed and which would be vetoed. Still, when asked about the bill removing his emergency powers, Edwards was clear.

“Let me tell you how bad that bill was. In the Senate, they had to twist arms to get the votes to make it pass and they did the same thing in the House, where it passed with 54 votes. It needed 53 just to pass. There was nobody in leadership or elsewhere who expected that bill to be signed into law.”

While efforts to limit the governor’s coronavirus restrictions and emergency powers were not successful, progress was made on other items on the agenda. Lawmakers agreed to keep unemployment benefits and tax rates on businesses that pay into the unemployment trust fund at their current levels, despite the bankruptcy of the fund.

But they didn’t find a long-term fix to refilling the fund that topped $1 billion in March and was drained as hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs during the pandemic. Louisiana, like many other states, is borrowing money from the federal government to pay jobless benefits. Lawmakers steered $85 million to the trust fund to help pay for benefits, but that’s not nearly enough to reach solvency again.

The House and Senate passed new rounds of business tax breaks, including a multimillion-dollar severance tax cut for the oil industry, and backed a one-time November sales tax holiday aimed at helping people recover from the pandemic and this fall’s hurricanes. It’s unclear how they’ll cover the costs of the tax breaks.

They passed legislation to give more rights for family and clergy to visit patients in nursing homes, hospitals and other long-term care facilities during public health emergencies. They sent Edwards a bill that would give the House and Senate the ability to overrule a governor’s rejection of emergency elections plans.

Lawmakers added $20 million-plus in pet projects to the budget. And they steered $20 million in state surplus cash to jumpstart repairs to state-owned buildings damaged by hurricanes Laura and Delta, while they wait for insurance proceeds and federal rebuilding aid to arrive.

“We did what we came here to do,” Senate President Page Cortez said in a statement released early Friday afternoon. “We secured funding for those areas most heavily impacted by the recent hurricanes. We agreed on a package of bills to protect businesses and the unemployed. And, we passed several measures critical to the state’s response to COVID-19, including a compromise on how emergency declarations are handled. I want to thank my fellow Senators as well as our colleagues in the House of Representatives for their efforts. It has been a tough year for Louisiana, but we are resilient and we will continue to come together as we recover and rebuild.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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