(The Center Square) – The Louisiana House of Representatives on Wednesday night put off voting on a $100 million-plus spending bill after members balked at committing money to local projects at the expense of public defense and the state’s unemployment trust fund.
“We did the best we could with what we had,” said House Appropriations Chairman Jerome Zeringue, before giving up and returning the bill to the House calendar for future consideration.
House Bill 39 passed the state House and Senate and emerged Wednesday evening from a conference committee tasked with hashing out differences between the two chambers’ versions. Lawmakers would use federal CARES Act dollars for health care to free up general fund money for other purposes.
The bulk of the money – $85 million – would go toward shoring up the state’s unemployment trust fund, which has been drained during the COVID-19-related economic slowdown. The Louisiana Workforce Commission has borrowed $11 million from the federal government to pay benefits and expects to borrow about $233 million overall.
The conference committee stripped out $15 million for the state’s public defenders, which legislators added early in the process. They planned to allow local defenders to purchase office space so they could redirect money being spent on rent into the costs of representing their clients.
Zeringue said the money was unlikely to make it through the entire appropriations process. While it was not stated publicly during Wednesday’s discussion, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration has expressed opposition, saying the public defenders’ project belonged in a capital outlay construction bill instead.
The bill calls for spending about $22 million on various state and local requests. The long list of allocations, many of which will cost $100,000 or less, include money for fire departments, parks, law enforcement, drainage districts and road repairs.
Several House members, including Democrats and Republicans, balked at spending money with little notice or explanation and pressed Zeringue on the criteria used to approve the items. Zeringue didn’t provide specific reasons, other than the fact that various requests were made and some were approved while others were not.
Republican Rep. Thomas Pressly complained about “special interest projects.” Republican Rep. May DuBuisson said she was “completely baffled.”
“This is not what I thought I came down here to do,” said Democratic Rep. Kenny Cox, referring to the special session.
The current session must end by Oct. 27. If legislators can pass the spending bill far enough ahead of time, they might still be in session to override Edwards’ possible line item vetoes.
David Jacobs, Staff Reporter for The Center Square, 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.