There had been talk of a special session in the fall since early summer, but as recently as a week or so ago, it didn’t seem to be on the immediate horizon. But over the weekend the chatter began picking up and by Monday, the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House had issued a call for a 30-day session starting September 28. Rarely does the Legislature move quite that fast.
What seemed to be more surprising than the announcement of the session itself was the length of it and the breadth of the items included in the call. Earlier signals from the legislative leadership suggested if there was a session in the fall it would be a quick one to take care of technical things like adjusting the budget or allocating federal revenues if any additional money came in.
Well, as it turns out there are no new federal dollars to spend, but there are 70 other items in the call which now has the look of a mini-regular session.
From CABL’s perspective we hope lawmakers will focus on the handful of essential items that need to be taken care of and avoid as many political distractions as possible.
There is some serious work for the Legislature to do. One impending problem involves the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. Last year, before anyone had ever heard of COVID, the trust fund which pays out unemployment benefits to jobless workers, was flush with more than a billion dollars in reserve.
But when the economy began to shut down in March, and unemployment skyrocketed, hundreds of millions of dollars poured out of the fund and into the pockets of laid off workers. Today there is less than $80 million left. When it gets low, state law requires that a surtax be placed on employers to help replenish it. No one wants to see a new tax like that at a time when the pandemic is still impacting both businesses and workers. So, lawmakers will be looking at other solutions.
The other big issue for the Legislature to deal with is recovery from Hurricane Laura. Each year in October public schools establish an official headcount of the students enrolled in every school. That headcount is used to send more than $3 billion of state funding to school districts based on where those students are.
The problem, of course, is that many of those students are not enrolled in communities that were hardest hit by Laura, and a lot of them are taking their classes in neighboring school districts. The Legislature, working with BESE, will need to determine a new way to reallocate those dollars so that schools in places like Calcasieu and Cameron Parishes will have enough funding to accept students when they are ready to come back.
Outside of education, there are millions of federal dollars coming to the state as part of Hurricane Laura relief. Those, too, will need to be allocated, and perhaps some areas of the current budget will need to be changed to assure sufficient and timely aid is getting to the most severely impacted areas.
There are a few other things in the call directly related to COVID response and Hurricane Laura, but a lot of things that are not. While many of them are non-controversial and seem to have been included only because the regular session was so disrupted by COVID, there are other things that could cause unnecessary distractions.
We hope they won’t. Right now, Louisiana needs a sharp focus on the big issues that must be resolved like the unemployment trust fund and the response to Hurricane Laura. The political distractions should wait for another time.