Legislative Roundup: Power-based abuse; vaccine ‘anti-discrimination'; solar incentive pause; and more

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder presides during the Legislature's 2021 regular session. Photo by Travis Gauthier

House, Senate pass companion bills on reporting ‘power-based abuse’ at universities

The Senate and House of Representatives, about an hour apart on Tuesday, unanimously approved largely identical companion bills that will require employees of colleges and universities to report incidents of “power-based abuse” of students and hold university officials accountable if they fail to take action.

Failure to report incidents of abuse would result in termination.

The House passed SB230 by Sen. Beth Mizell, R. Franklinton, 102-0. Its House sponsor was Rep. Aimee Adatto Freeman, D-New Orleans, who authored the companion bill, HB409.

“This is about keeping our universities accountable,” Freeman told the House. “We’ve all heard the horror stories about our students at LSU and other universities.”

About an hour later, the Senate passed Freeman’s HB409, 37-0.

Current law covers only sexually oriented offenses. Besides adding the reporting requirement, the new law would cover “power-based abuse,” which would include domestic abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and stalking. The House added an amendment to Mizell’s bill to add voyeurism to the list.

The word “hazing” is never used, but presumably forced binge drinking as part of a fraternity initiation would be considered physical abuse.

Any university employee who witnesses or receives “direct information” of such an abuse must report it to the school’s Title IX coordinator. Overhearing a conversation is not included. The coordinator would have to report the alleged incident to the school chancellor, who would report it to the system president, who would report it to the Board of Regents. Failure to do so would be grounds for termination.

The two bills as amended have minor differences that Mizell and Freeman can resolve and ask their respective houses to concur in the changes, or the two versions may wind up in a conference committee, which would hammer out a unified version to go back to each house for approval.

The House also passed SB232 by Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, which would establish a huge Power-Based Violence Review Panel. It passed 99-0. The panel would consist of the Senate president and House speaker or their designees; the chairpersons of the Senate and House select committees on women and children or their designees; the attorney general or his designee; the presidents of every post-secondary education management board; student representatives from different schools; representatives of the State Police and Association of Chiefs of Police; a licensed psychologist, a licensed social worker and several other members. They would work without compensation.

Senate committee OKs vaccine ‘anti-discrimination’ bill

After more than an hour of testimony Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee A reported a substitute version of a House bill that would bar “discrimination” against people who refuse to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

The bill, HB498 by Rep. Kathy Edmonston, R-Gonzales, was approved 3-2 along party lines, with Republicans favoring it. Several people in the audience applauded.

HB498 states that “no private or public entity shall discriminate in any way against a person based upon whether he has or has not received a COVID-19 vaccination,” and would remain in effect until a Covid-19 vaccine “has been fully approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration and is no longer subject to an emergency use authorization.”

“This is my right, this is your right,” Edmonston told the committee.

Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, challenged her. “With every right there’s a responsibility,” he said, telling her he owns businesses and does not want the state telling him he can’t enforce a mask mandate or require proof of vaccinations if he so chooses. “Why should we mandate how we conduct our businesses?” he asked.

Edmonston presented a parade of witnesses who contended the COVID-19 vaccines are still “experimental,” that they have not been proven safe or effective, that they have killed “thousands of Americans” and that it is a violation of individual liberty to intimidate citizens into being vaccinated.

Mortality and severe side-effects related to the vaccine have been extremely rare among the millions of doses distributed so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One woman, who said she was born in Germany, equated proof of vaccination requirements to the Stars of David Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany. The owner of a Tennessee hat shop on Monday removed, unapologetically, a controversial Instagram post showing one of those Star of David patches with the words, “not vaccinated.”

The witness also said she was in Washington on Jan. 6 and participated in the protests against Joe Biden’s election victory.

“I witnessed one of the most beautiful days I have witnessed in my life,” she said, “and the (media) narrative that came out of it was false and despicable. I became an activist that day.”

“This is about money,” another witness alleged.

But an LSU student testified that he is the son of a pediatric nurse and called the bill “an insult to all health-care workers.”

Another LSU student told the committee that the statistical claims made by advocates for the bill before the committee “have not been borne out by data.”

In closing, Edmonston noted that 10 states have passed similar bills.

The House passed the HB498 on May 20, 70-30—precisely the number needed to override a likely gubernatorial veto.

Resolution to kill solar tax incentives, subsidies passes Senate

After some lengthy and spirited debate, the Senate Tuesday passed House Speaker Clay Schexnayder’s HCR40, which calls upon the Department of Economic Development and the Board of Commerce and Industry to suspend subsidies and the ad valorem tax exemption for “utility-scale” solar projects that are not regulated by the Public Service Commission.

The vote was 29-8. Lafayette Parish’s two Republican senators, Senate President Page Cortez and Bob Hensgens, voted for it, while Democrat Gerald Boudreaux voted nay.

Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, the concurrent resolution’s Senate sponsor, stressed that “we have to establish some guidelines for solar in Louisiana. We can’t incentivize people if they don’t know what the rules are.”

But Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, argued, “We really don’t need this. It’s a horrible message. This would send a message (to solar companies) that we want to stop all economic development related to solar.”

“I’m all for solar,” insisted Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, “but we’ve got to do it in a responsible way and not hurt our property owners.”

The resolution listed several rationalizations for the suspensions. One suggests that “Louisiana citizens and businesses would best be served by an orderly and regulated development of solar resources that protects landowners, electric utility customers, and the electric grid.”

It passed the House 99-0 on May 11.

Senate concurs in House changes to concealed carry, National Anthem bills

The Senate quickly concurred Tuesday in House changes to two controversial measures.

SB118 by Sen. Jay Morris, R-West Monroe, removes the requirement for a nine-hour class as a prerequisite for carrying a concealed handgun. The House tacked on an amendment that the State Police must offer a voluntary one-hour online gun safety class. Morris told the Senate he had no objections, and it passed 27-8.

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and Sen. Bob Hensgens, whose District 26 overlaps Vermilion and Lafayette parishes, voted with the majority. Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette, voted against it.

SB118 passed the Senate 27-11 on April 27 and passed the House 73-28 on May 27. Gov. John Bel Edwards has threatened to veto it, but it passed both houses with veto-proof majorities. It was opposed by both law enforcement and the Black Caucus.

The Senate also concurred in House amendments to SB124 by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Chalmette, which will require the playing of the National Anthem at all competitive athletic events at facilities built with public funds. The minor House changes were accepted 34-1.

House asks Congress to ‘discontinue’ unemployment compensation

Responding to the reported shortage of workers in restaurants and other service-based industries, the House of Representatives passed an unusual concurrent resolution Tuesday calling on Congress to “discontinue” the unemployment compensation enacted by the CARES Act and thus force people to take available jobs.

HCR109 by Rep. Christopher Turner, R-Ruston, was approved 71-21. Among the Lafayette representatives, Republicans Jean-Paul Coussan, Julie Emerson and Jonathan Goudeau voted for it, Democrats Marcus Bryant and Vincent Pierre voted against it and Republicans Beau Beaullieu and Stuart Bishop did not vote.

The resolution reads in part that “there is some uncertainty with the extension of federal unemployment compensation benefits that employees will want to return to work and instead rather continue to receive unemployment compensation benefits.”

Other states have ended their extensions. Whether added benefits have discouraged a return to work is a matter of dispute among economists.

It calls on Congress to discontinue unemployment benefits to “help incentivize United States workers to return to work and to help rejuvenate the workforce, which continues to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

House OKs tighter scrutiny of voting system purchases

The House approved a Senate bill Tuesday that supposedly will lead to greater scrutiny in how the state purchases voting systems.

The vote on SB221 by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Chalmette, was 62-38, largely along party lines. There was surprisingly little vocal opposition or questions about whether the bill was fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. In the Lafayette delegation, Republican Reps. Beau Beaullieu, Jean-Paul Coussan, Julie Emerson and Jonathan Goudeau voted for it and Democrats Marcus Bryant and Vincent Pierre voted against it. Republican Stuart Bishop did not vote.

The bill states that before soliciting bids for a new voting system, the secretary of state shall “develop and adopt reasonable certification standards solely pertaining to the durability, accuracy, efficiency and capacity of voting systems.”

Under present law, the attorney general approves the secretary of state’s rules regarding voting machines and systems. Hewitt’s bill removes the AG from the process and creates a 13-member Voting System Commission to analyze different voting system companies and submit a report to the secretary of state “directing him” from which ones to solicit bids. It also creates a Voting System Proposal Evaluation Committee that will test the systems of the bidders and make a recommendation to the secretary of state.

The bill’s stated purpose of the commission is “to further the preservation of democracy by strengthening the state’s commitment to maintaining the faith, integrity and trust in election, voting and ballot-counting processes.” It would include two members each appointed by the governor, the House speaker and the Senate president; the elections commissioner; the secretary of state; two other members appointed by the secretary of state; an expert on election cybersecurity and the presidents of the Louisiana Clerks of Court Association and the Louisiana Registrars of Voters Association.

The bill generated some lively debate when Rep. Valerie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, proposed an amendment removing the secretary of state from the commission, saying she was doing so at Kyle Ardoin’s request because he would “have undue influence over the commission.”

Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, the bill’s House sponsor, protested that Hodges had not cleared this change with Hewitt and that Hodges’ amendment “was messing up the whole structure.” It was defeated, 28-69.

SB221 passed the Senate 36-0 on April 28. It is a prime candidate for Gov. John Bel Edwards’ veto pen.