FILE - Louisiana State Capitol

The Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

(The Center Square) – Louisiana legislative leaders plan to create a “contingency package” of spending bills that will be moved quickly in case coronavirus concerns threaten to derail the session.

“Although we fully expect to proceed normally, we felt it necessary to put a contingency plan in place to ensure that we are meeting our constitutional requirements while also, and more importantly, protecting the health and safety of our members, legislative staff, and all those who visit the capitol,” state Senate President Page Cortez said in a prepared statement.

The legislature is constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget before the fiscal year ends June 30. Typically, legislators don’t pass a state budget until the closing moments of the session, which this year must end by June 1.

“While our first priority is to protect our membership, staff, and all Louisianans, we must be mindful of our constitutional obligation to pass a balanced budget,” House Speaker Clay Schexnayder said in the joint statement. “To that effect, we have put together this contingency plan that would allow us to expedite the process in a responsible, efficient manner, if necessary.”

The details of the plan were unclear as of Thursday afternoon. The contingency bills have not yet been crafted; legislators plan to file them next week.

Another unanswered question involves what numbers will be used to create the contingency budget, since the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference has not yet settled on an official revenue projection to dictate how much lawmakers are allowed to spend. The REC is expected to meet again soon, after failing to come to an agreement on Jan. 31, but a date had not been set as of Thursday.

As it stands now, both the House and Senate remain on schedule to debate the budget and all other bills as they typically have in previous years, legislative leaders say.

“I thank President Cortez and Speaker Schexnayder for working with me to find a bipartisan solution that ensures critical pieces of legislation related to the state budget can be considered and moved through the legislative process purely as a contingency package,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a prepared statement. “These bills would be used only in the event that the risk of COVID-19 necessitates a significant change in the ongoing legislative session.”

Also on Thursday, the Georgia General Assembly announced it would suspend its 2020 legislative session indefinitely after Friday because of coronavirus concerns.

As of Thursday afternoon, 19 people in Louisiana had tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, including 15 from Orleans Parish, according to state health officials. All are considered “presumptive positive” cases, meaning the positive tests have not yet been confirmed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Staff Reporter

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.