Louisiana Legislature returns to grapple with pandemic-caused budget woes 

With some in masks and others uncovered, Louisiana lawmakers Monday resumed the final four weeks of a legislative session stalled by the coronavirus, trying to get their arms around the scale of the budget problems caused by the outbreak.

The return to the Capitol has caused a new rift between Republicans, who hold the majority and pushed for a restart of work, and Democrats who said it was too risky to have hundreds of people in the building in a state that is one of the nation’s hot spots for COVID-19.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, said lawmakers must address the economic crisis caused by the virus that “threatens our livelihoods, our friends and our families.”

“While some would argue that we should take more (time) to get started, I would simply reply we have work to do and we can’t wait any longer,” Schexnayder told the House on Monday morning.

The Senate was scheduled to resume this afternoon.

Seventy-eight of 104 House members returned for work, with attendance from Democrats lighter than Republicans. Democrats who showed up were wearing masks, while Republicans were mixed in whether they donned a face covering. Many did not.

Masks are “encouraged,” but no one is required to wear one in the building—even as Gov. John Bel Edwards repeatedly calls on state residents to do so when encountering people outside of their households.

Plexiglass partitions were installed between seats in the House chamber. Temperatures are taken to enter the Capitol. Rep. Gary Carter, a New Orleans Democrat, walked around the House chamber in a mask and gloves, with a Clorox cleaner bottle in hand.

Top priority is crafting a state budget for the financial year that begins July 1, to keep the government operating. Legislative leaders expect a large financial gap stemming from widespread unemployment and shuttered businesses forcing down tax collections and the steep decline in oil prices. But they don’t have a price tag of how bad things look yet, citing only ranges of $500 million to $1 billion less in state funding predicted for next year.

The state’s income forecasting panel is expected to meet May 11 to try to calculate the scope of the problem.

“We won’t know until really maybe the fall what the real forecast will look like, so there may be a lot of economists guessing to some degree,” said Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette. Read the full story from the Associated Press.

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