BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers held behind-the-scenes negotiations on a state operating budget and put the finishing touches on business tax breaks and other coronavirus response measures, as they reached the final hours of a special session that must end Tuesday.

A unanimous House vote Monday gave final passage to a bill using $50 million in federal aid to provide $250 one-time “hazard pay” checks to thousands of Louisiana's front-line employees who stayed on their jobs in the early days of the virus outbreak.

The Senate voted 33-2 to shield K-12 schools and colleges from most civil lawsuits from students and teachers who contract the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus — but only after narrowing the bill's scope to apply to the current pandemic rather than any further infectious disease outbreaks. It requires additional votes before it can reach Gov. John Bel Edwards' desk.

What remained to be settled is a final deal on the $34 billion state operating budget to keep government programs and services up and running when the new financial year begins Wednesday.

Also outstanding was the business lobby’s main priority for the session, changes to the civil justice system aimed at lessening damage claims that can be awarded in car wreck lawsuits.

Supporters claim the effort will lower insurance rates by making litigation less lucrative, while opponents call it a giveaway to business that will damage injured people’s ability to receive adequate compensation. Multiple bills were being considered, and Republican lawmakers were trying to reach a final deal with business groups that they hoped could avoid an Edwards veto.

The majority-Republican House and Senate called themselves into the 30-day special session June 1. It was only the second time in state history that lawmakers set their own agenda for a special session, rather than letting a governor dictate the plans.

The agenda was crafted in heavy consultation with business lobbying groups, and featured several tax break expansions and civil legal system measures those organizations have sought for years.

GOP lawmakers said businesses need state help to recover from closures and operation restrictions ordered by the Democratic governor to respond to the pandemic.

“Our economy is based on private businesses in our state,” said Sen. Barrow Peacock, a Shreveport Republican, during debate Monday on a tax break bill. He added: “It's employment that we're trying to encourage here.”

Democrats have pushed back on giving out millions of dollars in tax breaks, saying the approach is unfocused, won't specifically help virus-impacted businesses and could worsen state budget problems caused by the outbreak.

“You're asking to go back into a deficit in an already uncertain time,” said Sen. Katrina Jackson, a Monroe Democrat.

In response to the tax break expansions, House Democrats successfully carved out a small slice of federal coronavirus aid to give thousands of grocery store workers, janitors, nursing home employees, bus drivers, EMS workers, sanitation workers and health care employees a one-time $250 payment. That's the equivalent of a week's worth of state unemployment.

The money would be doled out on a first-come, first-served basis to as many as 200,000 people who apply and meet the criteria. They can earn no more than $50,000 a year and had to report to a job outside of their home for at least 200 hours from March 22 through May 14. They also have to hold one of the long list of jobs considered “essential critical infrastructure,” under the bill.

Nearing final passage is a measure aimed at giving schools protections from virus-related lawsuits as they prepare to reopen in August.

The proposal by Republican Rep. Buddy Mincey, a former Livingston Parish School Board member, would keep people exposed to COVID-19 at a school or school facility from being able to sue for damages unless they can prove the high legal standard of “grossly negligent or wanton or reckless misconduct.” The protections would be given to public and private K-12 schools; charter schools; and public and private colleges and universities.

The bill is retroactive to March 11. While Mincey sought to apply the legislation to any declared state emergency for an infectious disease, senators limited it to COVID-19. Mincey refused to agree to the changes, so negotiations continue on a final version of the proposal.


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