BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — With some in masks and others uncovered, Louisiana lawmakers on Monday resumed the final four weeks of a legislative session stalled by the coronavirus, trying to get their arms around the scale of the financial problems caused by the outbreak.
They’re struggling with the problem of how to craft a budget when economists say there’s little precedent for the type of disaster the world is facing.
“We won’t know until really maybe the fall what the real forecast will look like, so there may be a lot of economists guessing to some degree,” said Senate President Page Cortez, a Lafayette Republican.
Economists outlined grim expectations to the House Appropriations Committee of a slow and painful recovery and an economic hit to the state that will be greater than after hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged Louisiana in 2005.
The state faces a double whammy: the virus fallout from widespread unemployment and shuttered businesses forcing down tax collections and an international feud worsening the steep decline in oil prices.
“It’s going to be a long, drawn-out recovery here with no real boom,” said Greg Albrecht, the Legislature’s chief economist.
Monday’s return to the Capitol caused a new rift between Republicans, who hold the majority and pushed for restarting work, and Democrats who said it was too risky to have hundreds of people together in a state that is a hot spot for the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus.
Nearly 2,000 people in the state have died from COVID-19, according to health department data. That includes Republican Rep. Reggie Bagala of Lafourche Parish. Democratic Rep. Ted James of Baton Rouge was hospitalized and refused to attend the session Monday, calling it irresponsible.
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, an Ascension Parish Republican, said lawmakers must address the economic crisis caused by the virus that “threatens our livelihoods, our friends and our families.”
“While some would argue that we should take more (time) to get started, I would simply reply we have work to do and we can’t wait any longer,” Schexnayder told the House.
Seventy-eight of 104 House members returned for work, with attendance from Democrats lighter than Republicans. Democrats who showed up were wearing masks, while Republicans were mixed in whether they donned a face covering. Many did not. In the Senate, 25 of 39 lawmakers attended Monday afternoon’s gathering, with several Republicans skipping face masks.
Masks are “encouraged,” but no one is required to wear one in the building — even as Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards repeatedly calls on residents to do so when encountering people outside of their households.
Plexiglass partitions were installed between House chamber seats. Temperatures are taken to enter the Capitol. Rep. Gary Carter, a New Orleans Democrat, walked the House floor in a mask and gloves, with a Clorox cleaner bottle in hand.
Top priority in the session is the state budget.
Lawmakers don’t have a price tag of how bad things look yet, citing only ranges of $500 million to $1 billion less in state funding predicted for the financial year beginning July 1. Louisiana’s income forecasting panel is expected to meet May 11 to try to calculate the scope of the problem.
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief budget adviser, told lawmakers that Edwards will offer his budget recommendations within days of the new income estimates. Dardenne said proposals to increase spending on public colleges, K-12 schools and more will disappear as the state instead will be grappling with cuts.
“We’re in a whole different world,” he said.
Louisiana received a $1.8 billion direct aid grant from Congress. But federal guidelines have offered limited flexibility for the dollars, making them available for expenses related to the coronavirus and not available to offset tax revenue lost because of the virus.
The governor intends to earmark $810 million for local government agencies and the remaining dollars for state agencies. Dardenne acknowledged municipal agencies might have difficulty reaching that $810 million figure in virus-related spending. He said state and local government leaders hope Congress will change the rules to allow the money to be used to fill budget gaps.
Louisiana cannot deficit spend. The state constitution requires the budget to be balanced.
“It doesn’t make sense if we’re trying to get the economy going that states be in position where they can’t keep school teachers employed or first responders and all the other myriad people who work for states, especially at a time when the people are going to be demanding more services,” Edwards said last week.