BATON ROUGE, La. (WVLA/WGMB) — A smaller-than-usual group of Louisiana lawmakers spent some time together Tuesday — and discussed how much longer they should stay apart.
“We will keep it open-ended until we see a clear path to come back,” House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, a Gonzales Republican, told his chamber.
State legislators have become familiar with delays. Most of their business has been on hold for the past two weeks, amid concerns that large gatherings would further the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Only about half of the state’s 144 legislators were present Tuesday — most keeping distance, some in masks and gloves — as the legislature marked its annual bill-filing deadline. Once the filing finished, they returned to their districts.
Legislative leaders hint they may not reconvene until May at the earliest. By that point, falling oil prices, less business, fewer jobs and muted tourism may darken Louisiana’s budget picture. That could leave lawmakers with fewer dollars to fund the state past June 30, and because of the session’s suspension, fewer days to do it.
State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, a Baton Rouge Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, suggests a federal stimulus package may brighten at least some of the state’s revenue outlook.
“It will be interesting to see how much money we’ll get from the feds,” Marcelle said. “Until we get those dollars or know how those dollars are going to be distributed, we certainly cannot get our budget together.”
“At this point in time, we’re just going to have to take it day by day,” said state Sen. Rick Ward, a Port Allen Republican.
The 2020 Regular Legislative Session must end June 1. But depending on when lawmakers return, they may extend their work another month, to meet their constitutional duty to pass a budget by July 1 at midnight.
Legislators are also unsure how many of the filed bills they will have time to consider.
“It’s all going to be based on how much time we have on the clock once we get back in,” Ward said.
But no matter the bill count or budget picture, some lawmakers say they await the chance to embrace their fellow elected officials once again.
“We fight a lot on different issues, but we also come together and hug,” Marcelle said. “It’s been weird coming here and not being able to do that.”
One lawmaker not present Tuesday was state Rep. Ted James. The 37-year-old Democrat from Baton Rouge revealed late Monday he was hospitalized with pneumonia after catching the virus.
“I hope my constituents and the people of Louisiana look at my experience and understand that this virus does not know age, race, health or socioeconomic status,” James said in a statement.
“I implore everyone to stay home, stay safe and save lives. I know God is in control, and I look forward to beating this and returning to work soon,” James added.