Heading into the 2020 regular legislative session, BRAC released its legislative agenda, which was shortly after revised to emphasize a focus on economic recovery efforts now necessary due to COVID-19’s effects on the state. BRAC took a particular focus on protecting businesses from new liability risks posed by COVID-19.
Read some of the outcomes from the session below.
Legal Liability Protections from COVID-19 Exposure Claims
A key barrier to businesses reopening was the chilling effect posed by potential COVID-19 exposure lawsuits, which made providing liability protection for businesses from COVID-19-related claims a major legislative focus for BRAC this year. These protections were put in place via HB 826 (Pressly), for which BRAC helped develop language, providing that no entity shall be responsible for civil damages from exposure to COVID-19, unless there is evidence of gross negligence and it was not in substantial compliance with applicable safety procedures. Several other measures passed on this issue, among them bills providing protection for businesses that pivoted to production and distribution of personal protective equipment (SB 491 Hewitt).
Economic Competitiveness Enhancements
The regular session ushered in some welcome economic competitiveness legislation. HCR 4 (Beaullieu) gives parishes and municipalities the option to declare themselves “ITEP Ready,” eliminating the need for ITEP applicants to appear before each local taxing authority to receive exemption approval. The Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program was created via SB 396 (Abraham) authorizing local entities to receive funding from a company in exchange for later reducing the company’s property tax burden. The bill requires a constitutional companion, SB 272, which will receive a statewide vote in the Fall.
Also passed were a number of extensions of existing economic development programs that were set to expire, including the Historic Tax Credit HB 4 (Magee), Research and Development Tax Credit SB 4 (Foil), Angel Investor Tax Credit SB 17 (Hewitt), and the Quality Jobs Program SB 26 (Hewitt). These have been valuable tools for economic development and diversification in the Capital Region and the early renewals will poise them for use during this critical period of economic recovery.
To help the industry most deeply impacted by COVID-19, the legislature temporarily expanded the Enterprise Zone (HB 13 Wright) and Quality Jobs (HB 19 Pressly) Programs to include retail stores, hotels, and restaurants.
Business Recovery Assistance
One of the most important actions the legislature took to aid in business recovery from COVID-19 is SB 189 (White). The legislation established the Louisiana Main Street Recovery Fund Main Street Recovery Fund, providing $300 million in grants for small business. These funds came from the federal government, part of the more than $1 billion in CARES Act dollars allocated to the state to aid in recovery from COVID-19. Eligible businesses will be able to apply for $15,000 reimbursement grants beginning July 28.
Several pieces of legislation were passed that will provide relief and cash flow to businesses. These include SB 6 (Allain), which suspends the first $300,000 in taxable capital of the corporate franchise tax. To ease tax burdens for those whose health (or whose tax filer’s health) was harmed by COVID-19, HB 37 (Harris) waives fines and fees associated with any taxes due for the 2019 and 2020 tax years.
Tort Reform – A Compromise
The battle to provide meaningful tort reform to the state endured throughout both of this year’s legislative sessions. The Governor vetoed the Omnibus Premium Reduction Act (SB 418 Talbot), and the legislature responded with multiple tort reform bills in the special session. What finally emerged from the extended debate was HB 57 (Schexnayder). The legislation will reform collateral source and direct action, repeal the seatbelt gag order, and lower the jury trial threshold to $10,000. It does not include changes to the prescriptive period or include mandatory rate reduction language common in earlier forms of the bill, a plus for many tort reform advocates. Governor Edwards said at his post-session press conference that he would sign the bill.
Education and Workforce
BRAC’s original legislative agenda included HCR 33 (Freiberg), a study of college graduates to see how best to keep them in Louisiana and HR 34 (McKnight), which requests a report on the method of evaluating the state’s career and technical education program to ensure students are earning credentials that help them enter the workforce in high-quality jobs. Both resolutions passed with no bumps along the road. To support people in getting back to work, HCR 12 (Garofalo) requires the Louisiana Workforce Commission and the Board of Regents to provide recommendations for reskilling or upskilling individuals who are unemployed because of COVID-19.
Finally, HB 251 (Hilferty) recreates the Early Childhood Care and Education Commission, which has been providing recommendations to the legislature and department of education on increasing access to and quality of early education.
After four months during an unprecedented health and economic crisis, two legislative sessions ended with many things accomplished that will hopefully drive the state forward. While the legislature is not set to reconvene until next April, the political community is operating with an expectation that another special session will be called for in the Fall. Here’s to hoping that by then our economy and our public health situation will be on stronger footing. Regardless, BRAC will keep you updated.