"We’re going to hit it head on.”
That’s what House Appropriations Chairman Zee Zeringue, R-Houma, told me last week when I asked how his committee intended to dive into budget hearings. I wanted to know what potential there was for the committee to pass either a temporary, continuation or contingency budget.
Like most everyone else in leadership positions in the building, however, Zeringue said those intentions could change based on number of circumstances that are in flux. But for now, committee members are charging forward to tackle the budget warts and all, which could eventually mean devastating cuts somewhere down the line.
No one could have predicted the current fiscal environment a year ago. Unemployed residents, sinking oil prices and shuttered businesses are in, while planned investments in early education and teacher pay are out. The tough truth, moreover, is the landscape may stay that way for a while, according to Greg Albrecht, the Legislature’s economist.
“It’s going to be a long, drawn-out recovery here with no real boom,” Albrecht told lawmakers this week, adding, “The numbers are going to go down pretty bad for a while.”
In terms of what they budget will look like come July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, lawmakers like Zeringue are watching for a number of mile-markers.
1.) THE REC: The Revenue Estimating Conference meets May 11 and will determine exactly how much the state has to spend next fiscal year. In recent years predicting the outcome of REC meetings has become difficult, with conservatives on many occasions calling for delays in forecasts so more revenue data could be collected. But should everything go as planned, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne recently told lawmakers his office will have a list of recommended cut ready shortly thereafter.
2.) THE FEDS: Congress has already approved $1.8 billion in aid for our state and local governments, with $810 million going to the latter. The money can only be used on COVID-19 needs, but there’s a push on Capitol Hill to ease those guidelines and maybe even direct more money to states. If that happens, budget woes from Baton Rouge to Breaux Bridge and Bossier would soften.
3.) THE GAVELS: In addition to watching the REC and Congress, Zeringue said, ”We’ll also have to see what kind of direction the House speaker and Senate president take.” There are already expectations for at least one special session, possibly two (one in the summer and maybe another in the fall), which the Legislature or governor can call to order. Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, so far sounds hesitant on making final economic decisions any time soon. “We won’t know until really maybe the fall what the real forecast will look like,” he told senators this week, “so there may be a lot of economists guessing to some degree.”
4.) THE OTHERS: House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, and Cortez told reporters last week that only about a third of the session’s bills will be heard between now and June 1, when the regular session adjourns. There will be an emphasis, they added, on legislation related to COVID-19, the budget and the economy. But Democratic lawmakers say they have been disappointed to see the business lobby’s top priorities, tort reform and oil and gas litigation from coastal parishes, in that mix. Supporters argue the issues speak directly to economic development, but they could serve as a distraction as well.
Depending on how all of those pieces move, the chairman said lawmakers may have good reasons to come back in a special session for followup budget work, or maybe they won’t — it’s just too early to tell.
Zeringue said the budget hole could be as big as $500 million, but acknowledged “that others believe it could be much worse.” For example, Senate Finance Chairman Bodi White told Advocate reporter Sam Karlin the shortfall could range from $500 million to $1 billion.
In related news, members of the budget-drafting Appropriations Committee will be hearing bills that could ease certain spending restrictions during times of emergency and they’ll have some tough decisions to make in regard to pending judgements and settlement payments for the next fiscal year. “We’ll be looking into and evaluating those, but it’s going to be difficult,” said Zeringue.
In time, lawmakers will likely discover there are many other difficulties surrounding the budget as well. But for no it’s one day at a time.