BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Wrapping up a shortened regular session interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, Louisiana lawmakers Monday handed business groups the limits on car wreck lawsuits that they’ve sought for years while punting completion of next year’s budget to another session.
The House and Senate opened a 30-day special session immediately after adjourning the regular one, to finish work on a $30 billion-plus spending plan for the financial year that begins July 1 and to consider tax breaks for businesses struggling amid the virus outbreak.
“We have a significant amount of work left to do for families, for our friends, for our state, for our business leaders,” said House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, a Republican from Gonzales.
The regular session temporarily adjourned on March 16, a week after it began and a week after Louisiana’s first positive test for the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus. Republican Rep. Reggie Bagala, a freshman legislator from Lafourche Parish, died before the House and Senate resumed their work.
Lawmakers returned on May 4 and crammed in debate on hundreds of bills into a four-week span, with fewer lobbyists, advocacy groups and members of the general public attending debates because of virus fears.
Legislators agreed to expand Louisiana’s medical marijuana program to cover any condition doctors want to treat with cannabis. They decided to let voters in the November election determine whether parishes should legalize sports betting. They loosened restrictions on carrying guns in church and banned municipalities from enacting most gun restrictions beyond those in state law. And they voted to shield businesses from most lawsuits related to coronavirus injuries, unless someone can prove the high legal standard of “gross negligence or willful misconduct.”
In the final minutes of the regular session, lawmakers passed a Republican-crafted plan that carves out $300 million for small business grants from $811 million in federal COVID-19 aid that Gov. John Bel Edwards wanted to steer to local government agencies for virus-related expenses. The remaining $511 million will reimburse municipalities for their virus spending.
“Small businesses, their morale is low. They don’t know if they’re going to survive,” said Republican Sen. Heather Cloud, of Turkey Creek.
To boost businesses impacted by the coronavirus, lawmakers gave final passage Monday to a temporary suspension of the corporate franchise tax on some small businesses and to creation of a new payroll subsidy for certain retailers and restaurants.
The Legislature also gave the business lobby a long-desired goal that Republicans made their signature push for the session: passage of a bill to change the rules for car accident lawsuits that would limit damage claims against insurance companies and other businesses.
The House voted 66-31 Monday for the final version of the “tort reform” measure by Republican Sen. Kirk Talbot of River Ridge, and the Senate passed it with a 28-10 vote.
GOP leaders negotiated with the Edwards’ administration trying to keep the Democratic governor from vetoing the bill, but it was unclear if the changes were enough to satisfy Edwards.
“We just couldn’t come to an agreement (on everything), but that wasn’t for a lack of trying,” Talbot said.
Supporters say reworking the civil litigation system - to cap certain damages that could be awarded and limit when insurance companies can be sued directly, among other changes - would force down Louisiana’s car insurance rates, which are second-highest in the nation. They say Louisiana’s legal climate encourages too many lawsuits.
Opponents say the changes would keep people from getting money needed to cover their medical bills and could drive up costs for courts. They note the bill doesn’t force insurance companies to lower premiums.
“This is still a pig,” Rep. Robby Carter, a St. Helena Parish Democrat, said of the final bill.
Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat, was hospitalized with COVID-19 earlier this year and didn’t return until the final week of the regular session. He said the early May restart was too soon, done because Republicans wanted to pass the civil litigation changes, which James opposed.
“Nothing else of significance was accomplished,” he said.
In another strike at personal injury lawyers, lawmakers sought to rein in TV, radio and billboard ads from lawyers promising big paydays by suing businesses. The measure would declare as false or misleading lawyer ads in which a person claims to have received the full amount of a settlement or judgment, without disclosing the money deducted for attorney fees and court costs.
In a rare loss to business, oil and gas was stymied in its bid to retroactively nullify lawsuits that parishes have filed against the industry for damage to coastal wetlands. The bill stalled amid criticism from Jefferson and St. Bernard parish leaders, environmentalists and coastal restoration advocates.
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