House GOP leader unhappy with stay-at-home extension

Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, criticized Gov. John Bel Edwards’ extension of the stay-at-home order through May 15 and said it would make it harder to work in a bipartisan manner.

BATON ROUGE — The second-ranking Republican in the Louisiana House criticized Gov. John Bel Edwards Tuesday for extending his statewide stay-at-home order through May 15 instead of opening up parts of the state sooner.

Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, said Edwards’ decision not to let many businesses reopen more quickly will have consequences on the Republican-led Legislature’s willingness to work with him in a bipartisan way when lawmakers reconvene after a nearly two-month recess.

“I think there were windows of bipartisanship, and I think they probably closed yesterday,” Magee said in an interview. “I think we’re moving toward a very anti-bipartisan mood.”

The governor’s decision to extend the shutdown longer than many legislators wanted “was really hurtful,” Magee said, “not intentionally, but in having new members come in that had never been through the process before, and they’re very much itching to do something--to lead--with this crisis. They feel helpless back in their districts because they can’t do anything, and that has caused a situation where people are kind of spiraling out to the wings.”

Edwards and Republican leaders have worked together reasonably well so far through the COVID-19 pandemic, which has sickened more than 27,000 state residents and killed more than 1,750.

Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, who is running for reelection, accompanied Edwards at his briefing on Friday and agreed that the state should only begin to re-open once data about the spread of the virus meets guidelines created by the Trump Administration.

But business groups and some Republican state lawmakers had been urging Edwards to let areas that have not had significant numbers of cases open up next weekend, and Magee’s comments signal rising tensions over the timetable.

The tensions come just as the lawmakers and the governor need to work together to pass a new budget even as the state’s finances are being decimated by the cost of fighting the virus and the collapse in tax revenues from major industries like gambling, oil and gas, and tourism.

Edwards extended the stay-at-home order, which was set to expire May 1, until May 15 due to an increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in some parts of Louisiana, including the Baton Rouge area, Acadiana and the northeast portion of the state.

Magee said Edwards should have extended the order for a shorter period of time, such as a week, and then reevaluate the situation.

The virus’ spread has slowed in hotspots like New Orleans. But the number of deaths in some Acadiana parishes doubled over the past two weeks.

While the exact cause of this variation in case rates is unknown, certain regions may not be following the stay-at-home orders, said Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary of the Louisiana Office of Public Health.

“I’m not going to pretend we’re in a better place than we are,” Edwards said Monday.

Republican leaders would like the Legislature to reconvene next Monday, and Edwards agreed that the body is part of the state’s “essential infrastructure.”

“We didn’t close essential infrastructure, and the Legislature shouldn’t be closed because we have the month of May to get a budget in place,” Edwards said.

Democrats in the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, however, would prefer to wait until May 15. One caucus member, Rep. Ted James, D-East Baton Rouge, is still recovering from a nearly-fatal battle with the coronavirus, and he tweeted Monday that he does not plan to return to the Capitol for the “foreseeable future.”

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, also was infected and has since recovered. Rep. Reggie Bagala, R-Lockport, died on April 9 at age 54 after battling the coronavirus.

It is unknown whether those who have already been infected are still susceptible to the virus.

“I consider Ted a personal friend,” Magee said. “I don’t agree with him on this topic.”

By law, the session has to end on June 1. Passing a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 “is an essential part of what we do, and I think it needs to get done as soon as possible,” Magee said.

Edwards proposed a budget in February, just before the effects of the virus were felt in the state. At this time, the state was in what felt like a different world with plenty of room to be flexible in the budget given a projected surplus of up to $500 million. It included additional funding for many education programs, from early childhood to higher education.

However, the state has been forced to spend an estimated $600 million so far to fight the pandemic, according to Greg Albrecht, the chief economist at the Legislative Fiscal Office.

“We’ve finished with a surplus the past two years,” Albrecht said. “This year is going to be a very different story more than likely.”

Albrecht and other experts anticipate that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover most of these expenditures. However, loss of revenue from personal income, sales and severance taxes will present the biggest hurdle to balancing the budget.

“This is pretty off the charts,” Albrecht said. “There really isn’t any experience with it. People want to think that ‘Oh, it’s like Katrina,’ but not really. This is happening to the whole state and the whole country simultaneously. And there will be no rebuilding. There’s nothing being destroyed per se.”

Two-thirds of the state’s general fund--which is used to pay for public education, healthcare and social services--comes from sales and personal income tax, both of which have plummeted as businesses have been closed and people have been out of work for nearly two months.

Gaming and oil and gas are two areas in which the state has taken a major hit. the closing of casinos has cost the state $60 million a month in revenue, according to Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project.

Many oil fields have shut down due to the collapse in oil prices. The state collects severance taxes based on the value of oil, so it is not going to be able to collect the revenue it had projected.

The Legislature will not have a clear projection of how big the drop in revenue will be until the Revenue Estimating Conference meets, possibly next week.

“We don’t know how big the number is, but we know it’s going to be bad,” Moller said. “It really becomes paramount that Washington step up to the plate and provide the revenue that we can’t raise on our own. The only other alternative is to cut basic services.”

State officials are awaiting to see if Congress and President Trump will approve additional federal aid to account for revenue that states and cities have lost in the wake of the pandemic.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said last week that he was against bailing states and cities out of their budget problems and that they should just be allowed to go bankrupt.

After a backlash from officials in both parties, he modified his position in an , saying he would support providing states with federal aid money only if Democrats would agree to protect corporations from liability suits over customer and worker exposures to the coronavirus.

“I’m open to additional assistance,” he said. “It’s not just going to be a check, though, you get my point? We’re not writing a check to send down to states to allow them to, in effect, finance mistakes they’ve made unrelated to the coronavirus.”

Magee said this is great in theory but, in reality, it’s completely off the mark.

“You’re going to tell me Louisiana made a mistake, when our biggest problem is something that’s happening in Saudi Arabia and Russia?” Magee said. “The oil and gas prices affect Louisiana, and we have no control over that.”

“There are businesses out there who have made mistakes in their business practices, or maybe they’ve been subject to market forces,” Magee added. “Be that as it may, you’re giving them blank checks to keep them open and not requiring them to reckon with their mistakes, but somehow you’re going to hold states to a different standard.”

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