State lawmakers face budget deadline despite the coronavirus pandemic

State Legislature suspended due to coronavirus
Louisiana State Capitol
Louisiana State Capitol (Source: WAFB)

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) -State lawmakers plan to return to the capitol building next week because of a bill filing deadline after suspending the legislative session over COVID-19. But they are not expected to continue the resumed session very long due to the pandemic and that presents challenges for the budget process.

The novel coronavirus forced state legislators to suspend the annual legislative session a week after it began, and now legislative leaders are pondering how to handle the mandatory budget proceedings.

Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma, is the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"We believe constitutionally you need to be present and you also have to allow for public comments and we're looking for options and ways to do it electronically, but I think it’s going to be difficult, if at all possible,” Zeringue said.

The state constitution requires lawmakers to pass a budget before the new fiscal year begins in the summer.

"If not then spending stops comes July first,” Zeringue said.

The suspension of the session expires March 31 which is the deadline for filing bills.

"So, we have to come back in, at least with a quorum to both read-in the bills but then establish another date to where we will come back and operate,” said Zeringue.

Sen. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, is hopeful a budget can be passed before the session ends on June 1.

"We would like, of course, to get it done by June 1, but there's a lot of unknowns. We cannot rush through this budget process,” Henry said.

Up until last year, Henry chaired the House Appropriation Committee. In January, he was sworn in as a state senator.

"We have a lot of work to do on the budget to manage expectations, all the departments and also to make sure that we're able to have enough revenues available if we have to put up some matching dollars as it relates to any federal funds that come down because of the coronavirus,” said Henry.

The pandemic is affecting state sales tax revenues. Travel is down and some other industries are suffering.

"Gaming has shut down which provides a significant influx of cash for the state, that is going to have an impact,” Zeringue stated.

Low gas prices help drivers but not state government. The global market is impacted by the virus and that has driven down oil prices which affect state government's bottom line.

Zeringue said adjustments will have to be made.

"The state fiscal funding that we were going to have for this next fiscal year was right at around $57, $57 a barrel. Right now, it's trading at about $22, $24,” stated Zeringue.

Robert Collins, PHD., a Dillard University political analyst, thinks having less time to work on the state budget this year could result in less partisanship.

"They're going to basically be in a disaster posture the same as the U.S. Congress is currently in a disaster posture, so I really don't expect to see the partisan bickering that we've seen over the last few years,” said Collins.

Lawmakers are thrilled President Donald Trump granted Louisiana’s request for a COVID-19 federal disaster declaration.

"I think it’s great news. It’s definitely going to help out in terms of our ability to respond both from the agencies’ perspective but also from the legislative perspective,” said Zeringue.

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