Restarting the 2020 Legislative Session at this point makes no sense and will only cost the taxpayers of Alabama more money, House minority leader Anthony Daniels said Wednesday during a Zoom press conference.
Republican leadership has called for a May 4 restart to the interrupted session, saying it will focus exclusively on budgets and local bills in the remaining 14 days of the session. That decision has drawn heavy criticism from Democrats, who see little advantage to risking a return during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic when so little is known about the state’s financial shape.
“We have so many more questions than answers,” Daniels said during the press conference. “We won’t get state tax receipts for the year until July 15. What are you going to base the budget figures on — what projections are you using? It can’t be last year’s projections.”
Daniels and other Democrats have pointed out that sales tax revenue, which makes up the majority of the Education Trust Fund budget, will take a serious hit following Gov. Kay Ivey’s stay-at-home order issued earlier this month. That order forced most state businesses to temporarily close in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
There have already been projections of a nearly $2 billion revenue loss for the state, and many lawmakers worry that figure could grow as people around the state continue to be wary about going out to stores and restaurants in the coming weeks.
The severity of the hit will be more clear after tax receipts are reported on July 15 (following the extended tax filing deadline), and after state officials get a better idea of what to expect following Ivey’s recent easing of restrictions and full-blown reopens in neighboring states.
“This budget might be the most important one we’ve ever passed,” Daniels said. “The more we know, the better positioned we’ll be to make better choices.”
In addition to the economic concerns, Daniels and other Democrats have noted that the Legislature’s return is particularly risky at a time when officials are asking citizens around the state to be responsible and avoid going out in public unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Last week, both Sen. Vivian Figures and Rep. Chris England, the chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, raised concerns about the impact on lawmakers’ health this decision could have. The majority of the Legislature is over the age of 60, and many of the members have underlying medical conditions that put them at higher risk if they contract the virus.
It will be all but impossible for the full House to meet and still honor social distancing guidelines. While it will be easier for senators to distance themselves while on the senate floor, the State House hallways and committee meetings will still pose a challenge.
“Many of our members, as well as the staff, have small children at home, and/or elderly family members for whom they are responsible,” Figures wrote in a letter to Senate President Del Marsh. “Why would you put all those lives at risk for something that can wait?”
Marsh and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon have said that they want to pass the budgets in order to give guidance to state departments and the Alabama State Department of Education and public schools. Marsh told reporters last week that passing the budgets would give all of the various departments a better idea of what to expect.
But Daniels noted Wednesday that passing the budgets now, with incomplete or inaccurate projections, would actually do the opposite, and lead departments to expect money that would never arrive or lay off workers that could remain employed. And worse, the budgets could be so far off from the economic reality, it could actually force a special session to correct those issues and pass more accurate budgets.
“That is a possibility, and it would cost us thousands of dollars,” Daniels said. “We all know that we have more questions than answers right now. Why not wait until we can answer as many of those questions as possible?”