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EDITORIAL: State in tough budget spot over coronavirus

EDITORIAL: State in tough budget spot over coronavirus

As April 1 deadline nears, lawmakers can't sacrifice debate, transparency in rushing through budget

If you thought the state budget crunch was tough in past years, wait 18 days.

That’s how long state lawmakers and the governor have to rip up state revenue projections and come up with a revised state spending plan in time for the April 1 deadline.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) has wreaked havoc on many of our lives, disrupting everything from our travel plans to our 401ks to our health care to our sporting events.

But it’s also going to punch a giant hole in the state budget by hitting revenues at a time when lawmakers already were struggling to close a $6 billion budget gap.

Less revenue coming in means less money to spend on education, infrastructure, social programs and economic development.

It won’t just be Wall Street that affects the budget. COVID-19 will hit state revenue in other ways, particularly in the loss of sales tax and business revenue from the state’s lucrative tourism and convention industry.

Fewer people going on vacation to avoid airports and crowds means less business for hotels and restaurants. It means less revenue from business travelers. It means less sales tax from gasoline sales, which will drop even more if gas prices plummet as expected.

If sports teams play before empty stadiums and concerts get canceled, revenue losses will directly hit state coffers.

If businesses are forced to lay off workers due to a dearth of customers, that will further contribute to the state’s problems by reducing income tax revenue and potentially increasing the cost of social services.

With less revenue to work with, the state will have to reorganize its priorities for spending while closing the budget deficit.

Legislative leaders already were considering raising taxes to balance the budget. Taxpayers might be asked to shoulder an even bigger burden now.

In addition to depriving the state of revenue, the virus itself also will likely add to state spending. The $40 million in emergency spending lawmakers allocated last week for medical supplies and preparation to fight the virus might just be a downpayment.

Lawmakers can’t just sit on their hands and hope for the best.

Once they get the revenue projections, they’ll need to readjust their spending priorities. That could mean erasing planned increases, moving money around to other priorities and potentially cutting some programs the state had expected to fund.

The projected decline in revenue, which the state comptroller has been tasked with figuring out, could push lawmakers to rush through legislation on legalizing recreational marijuana and online sports betting as a quick fix to the revenue shortfall.

In their rush, they could be tempted to put off necessary action such as fixing the flawed bail reforms and passing voting reforms.

Lawmakers can’t use this crisis as an excuse to be more secretive and to rush legislation through without adequate debate and input.

To give themselves more time to do the job right, lawmakers should consider moving the state’s budget deadline back two weeks or a month beyond April 1. (It’s not like we haven’t had a late state budget before.) And they should consider extending the legislative session to ease the pressure on themselves.

The coronavirus presents a new and unexpected budget challenge for state lawmakers and the governor.

They need to act quickly, but without sacrificing transparency, debate and public input in the process.

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