BATON ROUGE, La. (WVLA/WGMB) — Louisiana lawmakers hit the gavel Monday night, then the budget books Tuesday morning.
A House budget panel began a special legislative session in earnest with the first of several budget hearings, taking testimony from state agency leaders regarding the $30-billion-plus budget that takes effect July 1.
“Welcome to the world of special sessions,” House Appropriations Chair Jerome Zeringue (R-Houma) said as department heads and legislators gathered inside a State Capitol committee room.
Lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards will have the final say on passing a budget, but the first say goes to the department heads. Most agencies are bracing for 2% cuts, due to coronavirus-related revenue drops.
“There was going to be money,” Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Walters told House members, noting the rosier prospects that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic. “We were going to get the staff we need, and our staff was really happy. Then all of our worlds turned upside down.”
“Obviously, this is uncharted territory,” said corrections secretary James LeBlanc. “There was no playbook on this.”
Both DCFS and the state’s corrections department say shortfalls mark a problem only heightened amid the pandemic. Nearly an entire dorm at Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility caught COVID-19, while stay-at-home orders have left domestic violence victims in close quarters with their offenders.
“I know that you have a really tough job,” Walters told the House committee. “But I need more people to work with these families.”
More state departments will present their spending goals and concerns over the next few days. But some lawmakers fear the coronavirus will leave members of one crucial group hesitant to speak at upcoming budget hearings: the general public.
“I’m hoping that more people will try to participate, but I certainly understand them not coming in the building,” said Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge).
Members of the public will be able to give testimony Thursday, after state health and higher educations get their turn Wednesday.