The Louisiana Legislature convened for about an hour Tuesday morning to move along new legislation and set up for contingency plans should the session, as most expect, remain in recess through April.

The Louisiana Senate convened at the same time as the state House.

Legislators suspended their session, which began March 9, two weeks ago as part of the state's effort to stanch the community spread of the novel coronavirus. But the Constitution requires new bills, many of which were filed to address recovery from the shutdowns caused by COVID-19, to be read into the record by a certain date if they are to be considered later in the legislative session.

Rather than the usual intimate conversations, which involve arms around shoulders and close talks, sometimes whispering, lawmakers kept their distance and spoke up. Many wore masks and gloves. Legislators also practiced social distancing by sitting in every other seat, which required the House to start with a voice roll call rather than the usual practice of taking attendance by hitting their voting buttons at their desk. 

Fifty-eight of the 105 representatives were in attendance. The House needs 53 reps in the chamber to conduct business. House Speaker Clay Schexnadyer, R-Gonzalez, said he told legislators that if they didn't feel comfortable, they didn't have to attend Tuesday's session. Only two representatives from the New Orleans area – Reps. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, and Joseph Stagni, R-Kenner – came. 

Twenty-one of the 39 state senators attended. Only one, Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, was from the New Orleans area.

Upon finishing their paperwork, Schexnayder recognized a motion to adjourn until a time decided by Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and himself.

The idea is to “keep it open-ended until we see a clearer path to come back,” Schexnayder said. "I hope we can come back in May."

Gov. John Bel Edwards said Monday that he would likely extend his April 13 order to “shelter in place” and limit gatherings to 10 people until the end of the month. But the governor has not yet issued that directive officially. Edwards has repeatedly said that early April is the time when New Orleans area hospitals could be in dire straits if the rise in virus cases continues.

Cortez said the key criteria for when the Legislature re-starts will be hospitals “and whether or not they are beyond the point where they think they are going to be overrun” by coronavirus patients. “I don’t foresee us coming in before April 30 absent a miraculous turn of events,” he said.

It is unclear whether Senate committees will meet before the Legislature convenes again, Cortez said. The Senate is generally prohibited from using teleconferencing or Skype to conduct its business. “No one ever anticipated this kind of pandemic,” he said.

Under the state Constitution, the legislature can convene 60 days during an 85-day calendar period. The session is mandated to adjourn by 6 p.m. June 1. If the Legislature doesn't return to work until May 1, then lawmakers theoretically can work every day for 31 days.

In a pinch, they could call a special session because the Legislature has until June 30 to pass a budget. But before leaving on June 1, legislators are supposed to approve operating, capital outlay, judiciary and other budgets – about a dozen bills altogether. Otherwise, all state government and its construction projects will come to screeching halt at midnight July 1.

Schexnayder said he plans, for the time being, to consider all the legislation filed rather than prune the non-budget measures and focus only on the money bills.

"We'll work day and night to get the bills out of here," he said. "I hope we can come in May and get it done."

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerome "Zee" Zeringue, the Houma Republican responsible for the legislation that will become the state budget, said he and the fiscal staff are weighing alternatives but he's still optimistic that a budget can be passed in time.

The big hurdle right now, he said, is sorting out how the federal money being sent to the state can be used. All the federal dollars will come with stipulations, directives and requirements that its money be matched by the state in some amount. Those requirements will require budget architects to rearrange spending plans, Zeringue said.

The next big step is for the Revenue Estimating Conference to determine how much the legislators can spend. Calculations that were valid three weeks ago have gone out the windows as the price of oil plummeted, casinos closed and sales tax revenues took a deep dive because so many retailers have been unable to do business during the pandemic.

Initially, the REC was planning to meet April 8. Zeringue said they may keep that date but only as an informational update. The REC likely will wait until closer to May to get a better estimate and officially recognize the amount lawmakers can spend, he added.

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