La. lawmakers call special session to address unemployment, budget issues

Updated: Sep. 28, 2020 at 4:48 AM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Louisiana lawmakers have called themselves into a special legislative session beginning at 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 28 to address dwindling unemployment funds and adjust the state operating budget.

The legislature will debate 70 topics during a 30-day session. It’s the second time in 2020 lawmakers have entered a session on their own, without instruction from the governor, which has only happened one other time since 1954.

RELATED: Tax hike and reduced benefits likely as La. runs out of money for unemployment

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder said in a statement issued Monday, Sept. 21 the special session will focus on three main objectives:

  • Hurricane Laura disaster relief and recovery efforts
  • Ongoing issues with COVID-19, especially relative to funding and the economy
  • The state’s Unemployment Trust Fund

“No one could have predicted or planned for the health, economic and natural disaster devastation that 2020 has brought to our state and citizens. A special session is needed to address unforeseen problems related to the in person education of our children and their return to extracurricular activities, the survival of our economy and the opening up of business, and the recovery of the areas of our state devastated by Hurricane Laura,” Schexnayder said. “A significant number of House members have also asked to address the continued proclamations issued by the Governor during the pandemic and what many see as an imbalance of power. This special session will not end without a solution to this problem.”

The Revenue Estimating Conference (REC) is expected to adjust its tax collection projections during a meeting Friday. Any change to the current number would reduce or increase the amount of money lawmakers have to allocate toward state services in this year’s budget.

Lawmakers cannot spend more money than the state collects, meaning a reduction to the revenue forecast would ensure midyear cuts are necessary during any special session.

Roughly 350,000 Louisianans remain jobless because of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the economy. The state’s savings for unemployment insurance payments have dwindled from $1.1 billion to roughly $85 million since the state’s first positive case was identified in March.

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If the account balance remains below $100 million, the state will have to borrow money from the federal government to ensure unemployed Louisianans still receive payments. The move would trigger an automatic tax increase on businesses while reducing the state’s maximum weekly unemployment payment to $221, the nation’s lowest.

The state will also have to adjust its K-12 school financing, since Hurricane Laura displaced thousands of students who would normally be attending school in southwestern Louisiana.

“I don’t know what kind of solutions they can come up with,” Council for a Better Louisiana head Barry Erwin said. “I’m not sure they have solutions at this point, but I think they feel like they need to get together and do something.”

The legislature will consider shifting money away from a $275 million small business grant program that has not been utilized as expected when lawmakers created it using federal funding during the last session. The money would otherwise have gone to local governments, which stand to lose $800 million in tax revenue through the end of fiscal year 2021, according to a report from the legislative auditor Monday.

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“A lot of good people have made a good faith effort to get this money distributed but it’s just not moving quickly,” Louisiana Budget Project head Jan Moller said. “Meanwhile there are a lot of people who really do need help right now.”

Roughly $100 million in the fund was unspoken for last week, a staffer for the Treasurer’s office said. Lawmakers' hands will be further tied by state finances because the U.S. Congress has not appropriated any additional money for states to fill holes and address unemployment problems.

“Congress hasn’t done its job, which makes it a lot harder for the legislature to do its job,” Moller said.

Lawmakers will also seek to gain more input in the declaration of emergencies and the way emergencies are handled in Louisiana.

“(My constituents) don’t feel comfortable with just one person making all the decisions and just one person having all that power," House republican caucus head Rep. Blake Miguez, New Iberia, said. "They want their elected representatives and senators to be a part of the conversation and find a solution which opens Louisiana in a very safe and quick manner.”

Miguez sought to neuter the governor’s executive order last session. He would not offer specifics, but said there are a number of “tools in the toolbox” to gain “a seat at the table.”

Senate republican caucus head Sen. Sharon Hewitt, Slidell, pointed to other states that require legislative concurrence if an emergency declaration lasts more than 30 days.

“We can’t sit idly on our hands and do nothing,” she said.

Each legislator said they’re hearing complaints about the restrictions Edwards has placed on bars, which are allowed to re-open one a parish maintains a 5 percent COVID-19 positivity rate for two weeks. Parish governments would have to sign off before they can re-open.

“It feels too many of my constituents like we’re picking winners and losers," Hewitt said. "People want to know that the rules are being applied fairly.”

Edwards noted that the White House’s coronavirus task force has endorsed each of his executive orders, and warned against declaring emergencies “by committee.”

“FEMA contracts with governors... not a council,” Edwards said in a Tuesday press conference, arguing that adding a legislative vote in the declaration of emergencies could delay federal assistance.

“If you have too much disease circulating in the community and you have too much community spread, there are certain things that you just shouldn’t do," he said.

Governor John Bel Edwards released a statement Monday in response to the special session being called:

"At a time when our state is dealing with the COVID-19 health emergency, hurricanes, and one severe weather event after another, I am concerned that the Legislature has again called themselves into a month-long session with an agenda of 70 items. This session will occur at a time when the public will again be restricted in their access to the State Capitol and their ability to give needed public input.

From the beginning of this emergency, I have relied on public health experts and the White House Coronavirus Task Force to guide Louisiana’s response to this historic emergency. Further, this response has been in line with the measures taken by our neighboring states that have unfortunately also been enormously impacted by COVID-19.

Put simply, the measures we have taken in Louisiana are working and we are making significant progress. However, to abandon these efforts in defiance of the unanimous advice of the public health experts and the Trump administration would seriously jeopardize the lives of our people and the gains we have made. Further, it is important to remember our work in containing COVID-19 is far from done, as Louisiana still has the highest number of per capita infections in the country.

I am hopeful that the Legislative leadership will significantly narrow the scope and the duration of this session so that they can do the work they deem necessary, while at the same time working in a bipartisan and cooperative manner to address our significant challenges in an honest and transparent manner. Louisianans have come too far to have all of our effective and life-saving work upended.”

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