Virus Brings States to a Standstill: Sessions Halt, Budgets Crater, Plans Wait

2 weeks ago
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The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on statehouses across the United States, derailing policy agendas, forcing legislators to set aside plans for spending on education, road construction and opioid addiction, and draining state coffers with startling speed.

Already, the fiscal damage from the virus is acute, legislative leaders in a dozen states say. Vast numbers of businesses have been forced to close their doors and millions of Americans face unemployment, creating a sudden need to spend on virus-related assistance, the certainty of sharp drops in tax collections and a turning of once optimistic budget projections upside down.

The outbreak has forced at least 22 state legislatures to close or postpone sessions at the busiest time of the year, when lawmakers typically pass legislation and negotiate budgets. But the toll on state policies and spending appears likely to extend far beyond a single legislative season.

“I could not possibly overstate how disruptive this virus is,” said State Senator Matt Lesser, a Democrat of Connecticut. “It has totally upended politics as we know it.”

The crisis has brought state policymaking to a standstill regardless of partisan control. Any legislative proposal with a price tag appears endangered.

In Idaho, Republicans shelved plans for broad property tax relief, saying they lacked time with the virus looming. In Missouri, also held by Republicans, the clock could run out on efforts to pass a bill to create a statewide database for doctors and pharmacists to track opioid purchases, leaving at least one Missouri Republican wondering aloud about additional opioid overdose deaths that may not be prevented now.

In Connecticut, controlled by Democrats, a long, fierce battle to create a public health option for those who cannot afford private insurance appears likely to fail, after lawmakers adjourned until at least March 30.

In Minnesota, the only state in the nation where the legislature is split between the political parties, Democrats had an eye on paid family and medical leave; Republicans hoped to exempt social security income from state income tax. Now everyone is recalculating.

“With coronavirus, it looks like that all has evaporated,” Paul E. Gazelka, the Republican majority leader in the Minnesota Senate, said of tax-cutting plans.

And in state after state, lawmakers say they suddenly have little money to address anything but the unfolding medical and economic crises. In some places, the annual budget-writing process, which depends on projected tax collections, has been sent into chaos.

Missouri legislators, anticipating a drop in revenue, put off voting on a new budget for the fiscal year that starts this summer until they know more. “Our priorities will just have drastically changed by the time we write the budget,” said Elijah Haahr, the Republican Speaker of the House.

In Colorado, analysts are forecasting that the state will bring in $ 750 million less than expected in the coming fiscal year.

“Pick a day and we are losing more money than we were the day before,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat and the chair of New York’s finance committee. “The federal government can print money in its basement. We don’t have that luxury.” In New York City, the comptroller has said that the virus was likely to create a $ 5 billion to $ 6 billion hole in the city’s budget over the next 15 months, one sign that cities, like states, expect significant fiscal turmoil.

The coronavirus has hit with particular force in densely populated coastal states — New York, Washington and California — where leaders have ordered stores, gyms, movie theaters, amusement parks and restaurants and bars to close. California expects to lose 280,000 jobs by the beginning of next year, which will have a cascading effect on state revenues.

But smaller, rural states are closing businesses, too, and bracing for a hit. In Vermont, Mitzi Johnson, the Assembly Speaker and a Democrat, said tax revenues “have come to a screaming halt.” Before the coronavirus crisis, the Vermont House had passed new measures, one that would expand access to contraception and another that would legalize the recreational sale of marijuana. More ambitious plans for education funding, though, have been shelved for a distant, more prosperous day.

The virus is threatening citizen-driven policy initiatives in the states as well. Twenty-six states allow residents to write referendums that carry the force of law, and this has become a popular way of forcing change.

In Missouri and Oklahoma, campaigns have been underway to force state Medicaid expansions, and in Ohio, residents were pushing to raise the minimum wage in a referendum that requires collecting more than 442,000 signatures by July 1.

But the virus has complicated the task of organizing and collecting signatures.

“The very act of going to your neighbor and asking them to sign violates all the rules of social distancing,” said John Schleifer, executive director of the Fairness Project, a liberal nonprofit group that supports the minimum wage increase. “Unless you’ve got a six-foot-long pen, that does not work.”

Not every state’s policymaking has been slowed by the virus, and on Monday, Dan Patrick, the Texas lieutenant governor, urged the country to get back to work, raising the prospect that the effect on policies and budgets may differ by state.

In Kentucky, Republican legislators have pressed forward with an agenda that includes setting new restrictions on abortion, banning police and public agencies from creating sanctuary policies for undocumented immigrants and tightening voter identification requirements.

Republican leaders there forged ahead with their sessions, though Democrats have criticized them for carrying out their plans in the absence of the public, which has been barred from the Capitol over concerns about the virus.

State Senator Damon Thayer, the Republican floor leader, dismissed criticisms that lawmakers were operating without public input as “left-wing talking points.” He said his party would agree to leave only if Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, assured lawmakers of an open-ended special session later.

“People want to use the virus to shut us down and kill bills they don’t like,” Mr. Thayer said.

And in Idaho, though a broad tax relief plan was delayed, state lawmakers moved forward with an array of legislation, including bans on gender changes on birth certificates and on transgender girls competing in high school sports.

“It’s a campaign year,” said Scott Bedke, the Republican Speaker of the House, “and this is just business as usual in a Republican-dominated state.”

The Legislature’s stance so irritated The Idaho Statesman, the state’s largest newspaper, that an editorial advised the lawmakers: “Coronavirus Can Kill You. Just Go Home Already.” The lawmakers adjourned not long ago.

In recent years, with federal leaders and parties clashing in Washington, D.C., states have often been the crucibles for policy innovation. As the virus sweeps through the nation, some of those policies may serve as a shield for Americans struggling to recover.

Eight states — Alaska, California, Hawaii, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — have passed higher minimum wages for restaurant servers. As the virus has forced restaurants across the nation to shutter and lay off thousands of servers and staff members, these laws will mean larger unemployment checks for the jobless.

Similarly, over the years, 26 states have adopted a policy known as short-term compensation, which allows employers to reduce workers’ hours rather than resort to layoffs.

“There have been years now of strong state creativity and that won’t get totally swept away in this crisis,” said Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution’s metropolitan policy program. He saw reason to hope that more such innovation — needed now more than ever — may lay ahead. “If we’re lucky and we get the right kind of federal stimulus bill, some of this innovation,” he said, “will likely not just survive but be accelerated.”

For now, many state houses reflect the nation’s ideological divisions and preoccupations, and the virus has not changed that. “It’s sort of like the lens you look through before coronavirus is the same lens you look through to solve issues related to coronavirus,” said Mr. Gazelka, the Republican state senator in Minnesota.

Republicans favor easing mandates and pushing back tax deadlines, he said. And Democrats, according to Melissa Hortman, the Democratic House Speaker, want to find ways to provide more direct aid to working-class residents.

“They look wise now in this pandemic,” she said of her party’s policies.

In some cases, though, liberal and conservative agendas appear to have begun to yield to survival.

In New York, a massive surge in coronavirus cases threatens to swamp hospitals, and legislators are trying to scrape together money to keep families out of foreclosure and eviction and to fund sick leave.

“I have to say that on the ground, in real life, people are panicked,” said Ms. Krueger, the State Senate finance chair. “There’s just endless questions that we in government do not have the answers to yet.”

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