A few months ago, everyone in Capitoland seemed to be sweating possible budget cuts. The economic downturn that trailed the coronavirus had not been kind to Louisiana.
Today, as more people are being vaccinated and businesses ramp up operations, the fiscal outlook is rosier — at least in the short-term
As it turned out, the executive budget proposal was spared significant cuts and now the Legislature and administration are preparing to divvy up $3.1 billion in federal stimulus money. Additionally, all of Louisiana's parishes and municipalities are working on their own plans to spend $1.9 billion in federal cash, representing the local cut of the American Rescue Plan Act.
During the upcoming regular session, lawmakers will also be asked to create a collection framework for a $100 million settlement involving Freeport-McMoRan. While that cash is earmarked for coastal parishes, the legislative debate over how to collect and spend the settlement may be marked with obstacles and opposition.
As a result, most lawmakers and council members around the state aren’t sweating budget cuts like they were just a few months ago. Instead, thes policymakers are more focused on what to do with billions of dollars headed in their direction.
Echoing a sentiment that is growing louder in the GOP-led House, Rep. Brett Geymann said he will file legislation to confine the allocation of all stimulus dollars to one-time expenses. “The issue is not about not spending this money; it’s spending it on recurring expenses in the state general fund,” said Geymann. “If we’re filling the state general fund with one-time money and growing these agencies, what are we going to do when the stimulus money ends?” “Let’s spend it,” Geymann added. “We have needs everywhere in this state — hurricane rebuilding, construction and debt, just to name a few.”
Presumably we’ll see at least one stimulus proposal before lawmakers convene on April 12. Gov. John Bel Edwards’ and his team are meeting Monday to continue building their stimulus proposal, but lawmakers will most certainly want a say in how the $3.1 billion pie is carved up.
Appropriations Chairman Zee Zeringue said the Legislature has staff members reviewing the American Rescue Plan Act to see how the money can and can’t be spent. Using some of the money to prop up the unemployment trust fund is one area where the administration and lawmakers seem to agree. “We also want to ensure the money is not spent on recurring expenses,” Zeringue said. “We will definitely have a say in this process.”
On the local level, officials are feeling their way around in a similar manner and trying to figure out exactly what was in the bill that was passed by Congress and signed by the president this week. Will there be direct payments? What kind of local approval process, if any, will be required.
“A lot of us are still waiting on guidance,” said John Gallagher, executive director of the Louisiana Municipal Association. “The way the dollars can be used, though, will be much broader than what we’ve seen in the past. I think it will address the immediate needs of our cities and mayors, and it will be very helpful to places like Lake Charles, which over the past year has been hit with COVID, hurricanes and winter storms.”
As for that $100 million settlement involving Freeport-McMoRan, lawmakers are having discussions amongst themselves about how to be best collect and possibly steer the money involved. Meant for coastal restoration and protection efforts, the settlement money could incur opposition from Republicans who remain unhappy there was a settlement in the first place.
“The Legislature doesn’t often set up a statute because a trial lawyer put it in a settlement agreement,” said Senate Natural Resources Chairman Bob Hensgens. “I can see where people might want to get really detailed about how the money is spent and collected, and I can see people wanting to follow what the plaintiff attorneys ask for, and I can see maybe people trying to look at alternative ways forward. I’m not sure which approach has the votes to pass right now.”