Lawmakers and the administration know a lot more right now about the budget and the financial impact brought about by COVID-19 than they did a week ago. But that doesn’t mean the House and Senate and Gov. John Bel Edwards are any closer to an agreement on how to manage the state’s recovery.
This past Monday (May 12) was a significant news day at the Capitol, with Edwards announcing that his stay-at-home order would end Friday to usher in phase one of the reopening process. In the House, conservatives were working on a petition to overturn Edwards’ executive order as a committee advanced a separate resolution to prohibit the governor from enforcing the declaration.
Those efforts to undercut Edwards are now somewhat moot unless lawmakers want to continue trying to force the governor’s hand during the first of three phases to reopen Louisiana in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. There’s little doubt that some conservatives are certainly considering doing just that.
The Revenue Estimating Conference, which determines how much money the state has to spend, also established that the state is facing a $1 billion budget hole in the fiscal year that begins July 1. That budget was supposed to be passed into law before the ongoing regular session adjourns on June 1, and the governor is urging lawmakers to stay within those parameters.
Yet, while Edwards said there’s nothing to be gained by waiting, legislative leaders argue that potential policy changes on the federal level may delay some deliberations until a summertime special session.
Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said that alterations to the CARES Act, which is the federal legislation providing COVID-19 funding to state and local governments, are “coming down the pipeline.” A second version of the act, being negotiated in Washington now, could mean more unrestricted funding for government budgets or a loosening of guidelines for the coronavirus-related dollars already transmitted.
Either way, any changes to that federal revenue stream would require a retooling of state and local budgets. “There’s a lot of changes that will be occurring with the appropriations bill,” Cortez said.
Cortez added that with less than three weeks remaining in the regular session, that means a special session could be needed to finish up work on the budget.
Other bills, meanwhile, are on the move and set the stage for even more disagreements. The Senate Natural Resources Committee, for example, passed in a 4-3 vote last week SB 359 by Chairman Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville, one of the top political issues of the session.
The bill targets lawsuits against oil and gas companies brought by coastal parishes, involving state permits. As it was sent to the Senate floor, the legislation would block district attorneys and local governments from pursuing legal orders on such state concerns
Taking to the mic during the debate, Sen. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, appealed to reporters to pick up the story, noting the initial passage was connected to “too many commitments to big oil” by lawmakers. “I’m glad I’m voting to kill this bill,” he said, adding, “It’s wrong.”
Offering a different perspective, Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, said, “I have a fundamental belief that minerals should be managed by the state.”
For business and industry, the Hensgens bill represents a top priority for the regular session, alongside tort reform—both of which are sources of concern for the Edwards administration.
While Edwards counted on the Senate last term to serve as a backstop in his battles against the House, recent politics suggest this may not be the case this year. Some of the governor’s allies haven’t been as supportive of Cortez as they were of former President John Alario — calling out Cortez publicly on social media, for example, for the delayed announcement of his COVID-19 infection.
While there’s still more game to play this legislative year, it’s an early signal that the Capitoland landscape may be shifting from a dynamic of Edwards and the Senate versus the House to the entirety of the first floor versus the fourth floor.