BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The Louisiana Legislature's 2021 political debates will center on the same terrain that fixated lawmakers around the country last year: the coronavirus pandemic, budget concerns and issues of racial bias in policing.
Some new twists will be added to the mix, including the redrawing of political maps, another try at rewriting state tax laws and legislative haggling over whether to reconfigure Louisiana's elections system. Meanwhile, several lawmakers will be vying for a vacant congressional seat in a competition that could cause strain for the New Orleans delegation.
The regular legislative session starts in April. Among the expected debates for lawmakers this year:
—Louisiana politics will remain altered by the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, with lingering disagreements between Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and some Republican lawmakers over his statewide mask mandate, restrictions on businesses and limits on public activities. Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican positioning himself for a possible campaign for governor in 2023, is certain to keep sparring with Edwards over the virus rules. In addition, new disagreements could emerge over Edwards' prioritization choices for the coronavirus vaccines.
—Louisiana filled most of the current financial year's budget gap caused by the pandemic with federal aid dollars. But Congress hasn't approved another round of direct relief for states and municipalities, and that could leave Louisiana with a sizable hole for the budget year that begins July 1 if a Washington bailout isn't on the horizon. Meanwhile, the state's unemployment trust fund is nearly bankrupt, and Louisiana has been borrowing from the federal government to keep paying jobless claims. Lawmakers and Edwards have a $270 million surplus from last year to spend, but that won't fix all the financial problems.
—Black lawmakers in Louisiana made sure the Legislature engaged in the national conversation about law enforcement's use of force with people of color. They successfully pushed their colleagues to create a task force to study police training, misconduct and racial bias recognition. That task force's recommendations are due to the Legislature by February, so the ideas will be ready for debate in the next regular session. The Police Training, Screening and Deescalation Task Force is supposed to make suggestions about ways to ensure reporting of law enforcement misconduct, penalties for improper actions and removal of “bad actors.”
—The once-in-a-decade task of redistricting to account for the latest U.S. Census data happens this year, and that process is rarely without controversy. Lawmakers will have to redraw the boundary lines for Louisiana's U.S. House, state House and Senate, state education board and state utility regulatory agency districts. The mapmaking is expected to happen in a special session. Lawmakers traditionally use the redistricting process to try to safeguard their own seats and benefit their political parties and allies. With a Democratic governor able to veto maps he doesn't like from a majority-Republican Legislature, the redistricting session could grow heated.
—Louisiana has a quieter election year in 2021, with no presidential race, no statewide elected jobs and no full slate of congressional positions on the ballot. But the decision by Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat, to leave the 2nd Congressional District seat for President-elect Joe Biden's administration has drawn significant interest from those who want to replace him. Though the special election date hasn't officially been set yet, Democrats already are lining up to run for the seat representing a majority Black district heavily centered on New Orleans, but stretching up the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge. A special election also will fill the 5th Congressional District seat representing northeast and central Louisiana, which is vacant after Republican Luke Letlow's death from COVID-19 complications. Meanwhile, lawmakers are weighing whether they want to shift Louisiana's election system to the closed party primaries that many other states use.
—Three years after Louisiana lawmakers and Edwards struck a budget-balancing tax deal, the Legislature appears ready to return to the tax battles. Some Republicans are pushing a full scale redesign of Louisiana's tax laws. Other lawmakers want to tweak the myriad of tax breaks on the books. And one GOP legislator intends to revisit the discussion of whether to raise Louisiana's stagnant gas tax to address a multibillion-dollar backlog of road and bridge work. Edwards hasn't said if he's interested in a tax debate, and such efforts are always difficult because of the two-thirds votes required to pass major provisions.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.