By David Jacobs | The Center Square
There is little doubt Louisiana lawmakers will find themselves in a special session in the fall, Louisiana Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said Monday.
“I think it’s almost inevitable because of the uncertainty,” he said.
Legislators already have decided to call themselves into a special session immediately after the current regular session ends June 1. Dardenne said lawmakers in the fall will have a better idea of how the economy is recovering (or not) from the pandemic’s fallout and likely will be facing either a budget shortfall or a surplus.
There is also the potential for additional stimulus or relief money from the federal government, though that money could be spent with the approval of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget and would not require calling in the full legislature, lawmakers said.
Though the state is projecting a billion-dollar revenue shortfall, the executive branch has been able to avoid what Dardenne said would have been “traumatic” cuts by using federal CARES Act dollars to supplement the budgets of departments that are involved in the COVID-19 response, then plugging other holes with state general fund money that otherwise would have paid for those operations. The federal government also has increased its match for the state’s Medicaid program, which helps to support the Department of Health.
Still, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration proposed about $82 million in spending for the next fiscal year, with the Department of Health and the state allocation for higher education taking the biggest hits, at $28.6 million and $21.7 million respectively. Increases for education proposed before the pandemic have been scuttled.
Legislators mostly signed off on the administration’s proposals, though they did propose an additional $12 million cut to the health department to fund other areas.
During Monday’s meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, senators wondered about the direct federal infusions for hospitals and for colleges and universities. Those dollars did not pass through state government, so Dardenne said he couldn’t speak to how the funds would be used, and senators suggested the entities that got federal money might be able to use some of it to alleviate cuts or even come out ahead.
“We don’t want a hospital to have made money off of this,” said state Sen. Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican. “We want everybody to be made whole.”
Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education, last week told the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee that some schools already have paid pandemic-related expenses that exceed their direct federal funding, and those expenses are ongoing. The money was in two pots: about $70 million for the universities’ expenses and $70 million for students.
“I wouldn’t say we’re whole,” she said. “I would say that we are comfortable in continuing to move forward.”