BATON ROUGE (WVUE) - Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic the opening day of the Louisiana legislature attracted fewer members of the public and Governor John Bel Edwards chose not to deliver the traditional address to lawmakers inside the capitol building but instead delivered his state-of-the-state address in Southern University’s stadium in Baton Rouge, where state government is located.
Edwards delivered his speech at the HBCU to accommodate more people because social distancing limits the number of people who can be inside the House and Senate chambers.
Edwards talked about the ongoing pandemic and the need for people to be vaccinated.
State lawmakers were gaveled into session at noon.
They expect intense debate over how to spend the more than $3 billion the state is receiving from the American Rescue Plan, the latest COVID-19 federal relief package.
Rep. Gary Carter, a Democrat, represents New Orleans.
“We have to make sure we use those funds to make sure we really bounce back; our whole economy bounces back from COVID. When you look at it, we have all of this money, but we still have 160,000 people who are unemployed. We still have still have thousands of businesses that are still shuttered,” said Carter.
Rep. Tim Kerner, R-Lafitte, wants more flood protection for the area he represents.
“I’m from a coastal parish, I’m thinking flood protection, coastal restoration, drainage in those places, and you know infrastructure,” said Kerner.
Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, said not having a budget crisis this year is a good thing, but he wants the extra money used to benefit education.
“There’s always going to be a fight. The focus though should be about what are our priorities. So, it’ll be about what are our priorities. Is it going to be early childhood education? Is it going to be trying to backfill and level up the unemployment trust fund?” said Duplessis.
Rep. Stephanie Hilferty is a Republican from Metairie.
“I think that will be a very thorough debate that we’re going to have, and I think it is incumbent upon us to get this right. This is a unique opportunity we find ourselves in,” said Hilferty.
Some legislators are pushing for tax reform, but Governor Edwards has cautioned lawmakers to not make tax cuts that would put the state budget in peril down the road.
It is also unclear whether states who accept COVID relief dollars can cut their budget under the related federal law.
“And that is a part of the American Rescue Plan which we are still waiting on federal feedback on; there is a provision that says that American Rescue Plan money may not be used towards tax cuts, and so understanding how that relates with our existing budget is something Louisiana as well as multiple states are looking to understand but when we look at our tax code it is a convoluted tax code,” said Hilferty.
Kerner said caution is warranted in terms of one-time monies.
“You got to be very careful when it’s not recurring funds; once those funds are spent you know they’re not coming back,” Kerner stated.
Rep. Raymond Garofalo, a Republican from St. Bernard Parish, thinks proposals to centralize sales tax collections will get a lot of traction during the session.
“Probably the most important thing we’re going to try, and tackle is centralized sales tax collections,” said Garofalo.
But local sheriffs and some local governments are pushing back on the idea said Garofalo.
“And what it’s going to do is, that’s going to allow us to do is to take more advantage of the online sellers who are sometimes collecting sales tax, sometimes not,” said Garofalo.
Governor Edwards list of priorities for the session includes raising teacher pay. Lawmakers FOX 8 spoke to favor the idea, and some want a bigger pay hike than what Edwards has suggested.
“Certainly from me, I am in favor of increasing beyond, dealing with the governor’s proposal which is a $400 increase for teachers, I think we should do much more and for support staff but even for our college professors we know that if we can’t retain and attract the best then they’re going to go elsewhere,” said Duplessis.
On Tuesday the House Appropriations Committee holds a hearing on the budget. A balanced budget must be passed before the new fiscal year starts on July 1.
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