Bare majorities of the House of Representatives and Senate gathered at the Capitol in Baton Rouge Tuesday for just one day in order to beat the March 31 deadline to file legislation for state lawmakers to entertain in this year’s regular session. The Legislature had shut down the session in early March out of health concerns as the Coronavirus established a foothold in Louisiana and elsewhere around the country. Lawmakers are expected to take a hiatus — again — until state government fully reopens, presumably in early May.
For the better part of two weeks, the virus has single-handedly idled much of the global economy, including here in Louisiana. The ramifications of it all are unknown.
Though tort reform and fully funding early childhood education were expected to consume the Legislature’s attention during the regular session, it’s apparent now lawmakers will forgo grappling with any hot-button issues, including the brewing battle between the business community and plaintiffs attorneys, and instead focus their attention on the state budget. Or what’s left of it.
For days now we’ve been hearing the economic fallout from the Coronavirus represented a $50-million weekly hit to state revenues, including a steep decline in sales tax collections thanks to a suffering economy as well as a dramatic drop-off in severance taxes. Oil prices hit their lowest mark in nearly two decades this week, and since state government is still very much dependent on severance taxes to make ends meet, any drop in the price of oil represents bad news. It’s bad news for the politicians who dole out state funding and the people who rely on state government to either subsist or make money from it.
It doesn’t take an accountant to determine a $50-million decline in state revenues each week could play havoc on the state budget. On the surface, any reasonable individual would conclude the Legislature must engage in some heavy duty cutting to state spending when lawmakers reconvene the regular session to piece together a budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year as well make any cuts to the current fiscal year budget. Or the Legislature could raise taxes and make everything alright again, except for the people who actually pay any significant taxes in Louisiana, namely the small business community and a smattering of wage earners.
At least that’s the view from the cheap seats while not acknowledging that the Congress signed off on a $2-trillion stimulus bill last week that reportedly will direct $1.8 billion to state government in Louisiana. Supposedly the money must be spent on any expenses incurred by the state to cope with the Coronavirus. We have to assume the stimulus money also could be used to offset losses in state revenues because of the virus as well.
Even if the stimulus bill doesn’t provide a route for Louisiana to use the gift from Uncle Sugar to prop up the budget, you can rest assured the Legislature and Gov. John Bel Edwards will figure out how do it and somehow explain it away. Or blame it all on the virus.
After all, this is Louisiana and if there’s one thing we know how to to do well, it’s spend someone else’s money. Just ask British Petroleum.
In all seriousness, the Coronavirus altered life as we know it. Thousands of people around the country are suffering from it and far too many have died from it. Businesses large and small are hemorrhaging money and tens of thousands of Americans have lost their jobs in light of the downturn in economy.
So, if there ever was a time for the federal government to spend money like there’s no tomorrow, it’s now. And we might as well get our fair share of it in Louisiana, even if a few ne’er do wells steal a little of it along the way.
Sam Hanna Jr. can be reached by phone at 318-805-8158 or e-mail at email@example.com.