Revenue Estimating Conference (copy)

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne confers with House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, in this file photo taken on Jan. 31, 2020. 

Four days into the 85-day session of the Louisiana Legislature and the novel coronavirus has leadership looking at how to suspend work, if needbe.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said Thursday that members of the Edwards administration met late into Wednesday night with House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, about their intentions and what would have to be done, legally, if worse came to worst and the session had to close down. Lawmakers are tasked by the state Constitution to complete a handful of chores, such as pass a budget. Each task requires several steps, many of which are tied to a specific timeline. 

Both Cortez and Schexnayder said they have no plans, right now, to close the session that began Monday with a briefing by Gov. John Bel Edwards about the growing pandemic. The session must end, according to law, by 6 p.m. June 1.

Dardenne added that the administration also won't close state government agencies and send state workers home, at least for the time being. “Obviously, it’s a day to day situation. We’ll have to see how it develops and see what the CDC (federal Center for Disease Control) recommends,” Dardenne said.

Legislators headed home Thursday for the weekend. 

Lawmakers typically work short days on Mondays and Thursdays and full days on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. That schedule could be altered if officials needed to make up time after a recess.

At the close of business Thursday afternoon, the House ejected the public and press from the chambers for a private discussion on subjects that Schexnayder would not disclose. A staffer said the discussion was about the coronavirus meeting Wednesday night with the Edwards' administration and whether to close the State Capitol to visitors. 

At the close of Senate business on Wednesday evening, Cortez told senators that next week’s committee schedule would remain intact but that lawmakers should prepare to be flexible. Some senators took those and other remarks to suggest that the Legislature might suspend business amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Cortez said Thursday afternoon there are no immediate plans for the Legislature to recess.

In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Cortez and Schexnayder announced they had agreed on a plan to pass the necessary budget-related bills if the virus risk grows and the session has to be curtailed. The Constitution requires the Legislature to approve a balanced budget for spending in the fiscal year beginning July 1. To ensure that a budget can be passed in the event of a more serious outbreak, the legislative plan involves an expedited process to allow for quick action on the constitutionally mandated instruments, according to the joint legislative statement.

“That would allow us to expedite the process in a responsible, efficient manner, if necessary.” Schexnayder said.

 The Legislature plans to file the contingency package next week but remains on schedule to debate the budget and all other bills as they typically have in previous years.

“Although we fully expect to proceed normally, we felt it necessary to put a contingency plan in place to ensure that we are meeting our constitutional requirements while also, and more importantly, protecting the health and safety of our members, legislative staff, and all those who visit the Capitol,” Cortez said in the press release.

Gov. Edwards thanked Cortez and Schexnayder. 

"These bills would be used only in the event that the risk of COVID-19 necessitates a significant change in the ongoing legislative session," Edwards said in a prepared statement. "This plan will help us meet our constitutional requirement to have a balanced budget in place by the end of the fiscal year, while also allowing us to protect the health of legislators, staff and visitors to our State Capitol and reduce the spread of illness. In the meantime, my office and all executive branch agencies will continue to work with the Legislature as it considers the budget package and capital outlay bill in regular order."

House and Senate committees have scheduled hearings for for Monday morning.

Legally, the Legislature began at noon on March 9 and must conclude its business by 6 p.m. June 1. However, the state Constitution does allow the governor to convene the Legislature into special session “in the event of public emergency caused by epidemic…”

Edwards issued an emergency proclamation Wednesday afternoon.

Staff writer Will Sentell contributed to this report.

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Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.