The politicians who normally gather from around the state in Baton Rouge this time of year were elected last fall with all sorts of ideas about what they wanted to do.
For many Republicans in the Legislature, the brass ring was tort reform, a set of changes to how lawsuits are conducted that would limit the sway of trial lawyers — and, they insist but cannot guarantee — could lead to lower car insurance rates. For Democrats, it was another stab at raising the state minimum wage.
For lawmakers of both parties and for Gov. John Bel Edwards, the agenda included managing the unfamiliar terrain of budgetary stability, even arguable health.
Like everyone’s best-laid plans, these to-do lists are crumpled up in the trash.
A day after Edwards said he’d extend his stay-at-home order through the end of April in the hopes of flattening the coronavirus curve, some lawmakers gathered as closely as people safely can these days to take the required procedural steps to allow the Legislature to eventually complete the session’s unfinished business, should that be possible. Their brief work consisted of reading new bills into the record, so that they can be taken up later in a session that must end June 1.
Amid distressing news that a senior House member, state Rep. Ted James of Baton Rouge, had become the first lawmaker to contract the coronavirus and was hospitalized, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder said the goal is to “keep it open-ended until we see a clearer path to come back,” hopefully in May.
But even under that best-case scenario, there’s not going to be any back-to-normal any time soon. No matter when lawmakers can finally get to work, their demands of the job will be different than they were when the Legislature convened March 9, the same day the first Louisiana instance of coronavirus was discovered.
The budget picture, of late the subject of political gamesmanship between Edwards and Republican lawmakers, is now genuinely unclear. Among the new variables are lost sales tax from shuttered retailers, closed casinos, and sharply reduced oil prices; federal aid to combat the crisis that comes with complicated rules; and the vast, sudden shift in Louisiana’s employment picture. The panel that determines how much the state can spend hasn’t even decided when it will adopt the formal revenue estimate used to prepare a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. It’s likely that whatever that budget looks like will need ongoing adjustment, as the crisis’ long-term effects become apparent, and we can expect other major legislation to get the state back on track.
So for now at least, the best thing for politicians to do isn’t to dwell on their campaign promises but to meet this unprecedented moment. The problems they came to Baton Rouge to solve will still be there on the other side.