Gov. John Bel Edwards

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards holds a news conference on July 30, 2020.

(The Center Square) – Gov. John Bel Edwards has vetoed three bills meant to provide financial relief to small businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and response.

He has also rejected a tax break for the oil industry, citing the cost and various technical issues, and a proposed set of changes to how Louisiana handles elections during an emergency.

House Bill 29 would have created a severance tax exemption for certain oil wells. Supporters said the exemption could spur more industry investment, creating work for service companies that currently are struggling.

“This is a time to stimulate our economy,” said Rep. Phillip DeVillier, the Eunice Republican who authored the bill and argued that it would “put people back to work.”

Edwards noted that the legislation did not include a requirement to create jobs. He said no evidence was presented that it would create jobs or increase production. He also cited the Legislative Fiscal Office’s estimate that the change would cost the state more than $38 million over five years, though supporters argued it might actually lead to a net increase in state revenue.

Edwards also said the legislation has several technical problems that would create uncertainty for the industry and regulators.

“Lastly, this bill was one of several bills introduced in this most recent session unrelated to the ostensible and claimed reason for the session – COVID-19 response and hurricane recovery,” Edwards wrote in his veto message. “There will be a fiscal session of the Legislature in the Spring of 2021 where this plan and other tax measures can be fully debated and considered.”

House Bill 37 called for an income tax credit for bars and restaurants whose sales were harmed by the pandemic. Since state government imposed tight restrictions on bars and restaurants as part of the effort to control the spread of the new coronavirus, lawmakers wanted to give those businesses a small boost.

Edwards said he vetoed HB 37 because he already had signed Senate Bill 72. Though the latter bill gives a similar benefit to the same businesses, the details differ and the two bills cannot co-exist, he says.

In his veto message for Senate Bill 18, which calls for reduced permit fees for alcohol manufacturers and retailers that temporarily closed during the pandemic, Edwards likewise cited SB 72’s benefits for those same businesses. He also pointed to ambiguities in the bill’s language that could limit the intended benefits and the potential cost to the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, which depends on self-generated revenue.

House Bill 94 would have exempted a long list of businesses impacted by COVID-19 from paying license renewal fees during the declared state of emergency and for six months following the termination of the state of emergency. The idea is that businesses forced to close or limit operations during the pandemic should get a break on their license fees.

Edwards said the legislation is “well-intentioned” but “extremely vague and fraught with unknowns that may have been addressed in a more thorough manner than that which happened during the Special Session.”

Senate Bill 20 made changes to how lawmakers approve an emergency election plan, such as was used during this year’s elections due to COVID-19, that both Edwards and author Sen. Sharon Hewitt agree would be improvements over the current “cumbersome” process.

But Edwards said the approval process envisioned in SB 20 might be unconstitutional because it doesn’t require a public meeting. In fact, the bill allows legislators to vote on a plan by text message, which he suggested might not be secure because it would eliminate the “paper trail” of the mail-in ballots currently used. Edwards said he would work with Hewitt during next year’s regular session on another bill to improve the approval process.

Staff Reporter

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.