The members of the new Legislature that was supposed to be meeting right now should get some sympathy, too, during this trying epidemic episode.
Not only have several members of 144 been hospitalized, including an influential committee chairman, Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, but the ambitions of a large number of new members have been thwarted.
Because of term limits, the high-profile leadership positions changed. The new Senate president is Page Cortez, of Lafayette, and House speaker is Clay Schexnayder, of Gonzales, both Republicans leading larger GOP majorities in each chamber.
But the turnover meant there are 45 newly elected lawmakers in the 105-member House and 20 newly elected in the 39-member Senate (although 10 of the new senators served last year in the House).
For new members of the Legislature, the virus has not been a respecter of their calendar. Just as they got their official lapel pins, an act of God prevented them from meeting. Now, constitutional deadlines, particularly because of the lack of reliable revenue numbers for the budget, make it irresponsible to come back too soon.
Many if not most of the new Republican members campaigned on changes to tort laws, with the goal of limiting lawsuits and thereby, it is hoped, lowering Louisiana’s ridiculously high automobile insurance rates.
But it would be malpractice to embark on those kind of battles in a state facing the crises, plural, caused by coronavirus. Gov. John Bel Edwards said this week that the state faces hard weeks ahead, and he’s not putting a firm end-date on stay-at-home orders.
That means there are profound economic dislocations for the people of the state. And that means that there is a budget crisis in the making for state government.
New members may say that they understand the importance of the budget, but often they do not internalize that as their reality. Government is what you fund in the budget. And right now, only God knows how much money there’ll be in the budget.
With luck and a commitment to social distancing, that gloomy scenario might change. But the governor’s tone — and he’s as stressed as I’ve ever seen him, however well he’s handling things — suggests that things really are going to get worse before they get better.
For the leadership of House and Senate, in their third terms, there is recognition that — if the state is very, very lucky — a May 1 return to the State Capitol leaves time for passage of critical bills, meaning the budget. Working five days a week, legislators can get a lot done, although the plethora of vital measures creating prestige license plates and anointing a state butterfly won’t be heard.
But even in the unlikely event there is time to pass a budget, the numbers won’t be there to support a responsible document. Leave aside the vast disruption in revenues from closure of businesses, tourism and casino takes gone, the price of oil through the floor.
There also has been significant short-term tax relief to help families and businesses, like extending deadlines for filing state income taxes. People and businesses owing taxes probably aren’t going to file by May 15; the new deadline is July 15. What income tax numbers are budget-writers going to use for a budget going into effect July 1?
Edwards and leaders at the local level are going to wring out every bit of federal help, including that authorized by President Donald Trump’s disaster declaration. That’s mostly cost-sharing for emergency response. But unlike new members of the Legislature, the old hands know just how much red tape is required to get the federal dollar.
Those flooded in the greater Baton Rouge area in 2016 are most recently aware of how long it takes for the state and local governments to pry relief funds out of the bureaucracy.
With all these factors, it’s looking inevitable that the Legislature — proud of its independence from the governor, electing its own leaders — will have to defer to Edwards. A temporary budget document would basically authorize — as continuing resolutions do in Congress — agencies to keep on doing what is needed.
A special session in the fall has a better chance of making responsible budget decisions. We’ll see if the new Legislature defines conservative as prudent.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.