BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — With some in masks and others uncovered, Louisiana lawmakers Monday resumed the final four weeks of a legislative session stalled by the coronavirus, trying to get their arms around the scale of the budget problems caused by the outbreak.
The return to the Capitol has caused a new rift between Republicans, who hold the majority and pushed for a restart of work, and Democrats who said it was too risky to have hundreds of people in the building in a state that is one of the nation’s hot spots for the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus.
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 on Monday morning.
The Senate was scheduled to resume in the afternoon.
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.
Masks are “encouraged,” but no one is required to wear one in the building — even as Gov. John Bel Edwards repeatedly calls on state residents to do so when encountering people outside of their households.
Plexiglass partitions were installed between seats in the House chamber. Temperatures are taken to enter the Capitol. Rep. Gary Carter, a New Orleans Democrat, walked around the House chamber in a mask and gloves, with a Clorox cleaner bottle in hand.
Top priority is crafting a state budget for the financial year that begins July 1, to keep government operating.
Legislative leaders expect a large financial gap stemming from widespread unemployment and shuttered businesses forcing down tax collections and the steep decline in oil prices. But they 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 next year.
The state’s income forecasting panel is expected to meet May 11 to try to calculate the scope of the problem.
“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.
Lawmakers are speculating they’ll need at least one, possibly two, special sessions this year to adjust the budget as the virus impact becomes clearer — and to deal with the economic fallout.
Congress has approved $1.8 billion in direct aid for state and local governments. Edwards said $810 million will flow to local government agencies and the remaining dollars retained for state agencies.
But federal guidelines have offered limited flexibility for the dollars, making them available for direct response to the coronavirus and not available to offset lost tax revenue. The Democratic governor and lawmakers said they are hopeful Congress might take additional action to lessen the restrictions on the money and also provide more.
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.
More than 29,000 people in Louisiana have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 1,969 people have died, according to state health department data. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For others, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
One House member, Republican Rep. Reggie Bagala of Lafourche Parish, died from COVID-19. Democratic Rep. Ted James of Baton Rouge was hospitalized for days and refused to attend the session Monday, calling it irresponsible.