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House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Jerome 'Zee' Zeringue, R-Houma, right, chats with Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa, during legislative action Monday June 29, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.

After several days of negotiations – and a controversy that erupted over pet projects to lawmakers’ districts – the Louisiana Legislature Thursday voted to spend tens of millions of dollars to help shore up the state’s dwindling unemployment fund and send money to a host of local projects, police departments and public defenders.

House lawmakers of both parties bristled late Wednesday night when legislative leaders sought to pass a budget bill that spent $22 million on a host of earmarks in legislators’ districts. Those included $250,000 for the Cajundome in Lafayette, $2 million for the Baton Rouge Police Department and $250,000 for a lighthouse in Madisonville, and prompted questions about whether the Legislature was spending money wisely in a pandemic. 

After Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue shelved House Bill 39 Wednesday, he returned Thursday with a new deal that passed through both chambers, sending the spending plan to the governor’s desk.

House members were initially skeptical that the budget deal took away $15 million lawmakers wanted to send to public defenders, then funded the host of projects around the state, including parks and drainage initiatives. Public defenders had testified they are in dire need of office space after hurricanes destroyed their buildings in southwest Louisiana.

“I’m completely baffled,” Rep. Mary Dubuisson, a Slidell Republican who served on the Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday night. “I don’t understand when all these were approved, when we committee members didn’t know about it. How did that happen?”

Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, complained the list of projects appeared to be “blank checks,” with little explanation of where the money is going. More than $2 million was slated to go to the Baton Rouge Police Department for “coronavirus response.” The city of Baton Rouge has already gotten tens of millions of dollars in federal aid by asking for reimbursement for police expenses.

“If we’re borrowing money from the federal government that we don’t have … maybe the sports complex that’s getting $1 million, maybe that shouldn’t be as high a priority,” said Nelson, who ultimately voted against the bill.

Zeringue said Thursday the revised plan took out some of the money for parks and focused on infrastructure, drainage and first responders. The final spending plan gave $3 million back to public defenders and $5 million for tourism. It also changed some of the pet projects. For instance, the Baton Rouge parks agency was slated for $250,000 and the Lafayette parks agency was to get $500,000 for lighting, but both were removed. The earmarks for the Cajundome, Madisonville lighthouse, BRPD and others remained. 

“The money is going to projects that represent infrastructure, drainage, going to policemen and firemen,” Zeringue said, adding later that some of the Senate amendments sending money to parks stayed. 

The final deal also sent another $1 million to LSU Health Sciences Center Shreveport for coronavirus testing and $560,000 for Hurricane Laura relief in southwest Louisiana.

HB39 appeared to soothe the concerns of many House members, and passed on a 81-13 vote in the lower chamber, and 31-0 in the Senate.

Still, Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, said he didn’t feel comfortable voting on a bill when he didn’t know what exactly was in it. Bacala noted the conference committee report – ostensibly aimed at resolving differences between the House and Senate – actually injected millions in new projects into the bill.

“Give me time to see what I’m voting on. That’s all I ask,” Bacala said before voting in favor of the measure.

The Legislature is in a special session called by Republican lawmakers with three primary topics: Hurricane relief, shoring up the unemployment trust fund and giving lawmakers power over Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions.

The effort to give themselves power over the coronavirus rules started fast but hit a snag when House and Senate Republicans reached a stalemate over how much power they want. While many House Republicans want an actual vote on his emergency plans, Senate Republicans appear more inclined to give themselves oversight – something Edwards and Democrats have indicated they could support.

After the pandemic caused historic levels of unemployment, the fund that pays the state’s unemployment benefits ran out of money this month, causing Edwards’ administration to borrow millions of dollars from the feds to keep it afloat. The $85 million in the budget bill will reduce the amount Louisiana has to borrow, but the state will still be on the hook for hundreds of millions in debt without a new aid bill from Congress.

Gov. Edwards during a Thursday press conference declined to comment on the supplemental appropriations bill, noting it could be changed before it reaches his desk. He also noted he has the ability to "line-item veto" the bill, meaning he can strip out any funding he wants. The Legislature has the ability to override his vetoes with a two-thirds majority vote of both chambers, something that historically almost never happens. Lawmakers wanted to pass the bill Thursday to try to be in session when the governor is constitutionally required to issue those line-item vetoes, potentially to override them.

“I would hope that they make sure that we do things to shore up the solvency of the unemployment trust fund," Edwards said of lawmakers' approach to spending. "If we can move more money to the local efforts with respect to CARES Act, I think that would be a good thing.”

The state Senate approved HB39 on a vote of 31-0.

In the House, the vote was 87-13.

Voting for the supplemental budget bill (87): House Speaker Schexnayder and Reps Adams, Amedee, Bacala, Bagley, Beaullieu, Bishop, Bourriaque, Brass, Brown, Bryant, Butler, Carpenter, Carrier, G. Carter, R. Carter, W. Carter, Coussan, Davis, Deshotel, DeVillier, DuBuisson, Duplessis, Dwight, Echols, Edmonds, Edmonston, Emerson, Farnum, Firment, Fontenot, Freeman, Freiberg, Gaines, Garofalo, Goudeau, Green, Harris, Hodges, Horton, Hughes, Huval, Illg, Ivey, James, Jefferson, Jenkins, M. Johnson, T. Johnson, Jones, Jordan, Kerner, LaCombe, Larvadain, Lyons, Mack, Magee, McFarland, McKnight, McMahen, Miguez, D. Miller, G. Miller, Mincey, Moore, Muscarello, Newell, Orgeron, R. Owen, Phelps, Pierre, Pressly, Riser, Romero, Selders, St. Blanc, Stagni, Stefanski, Tarver, Thomas, Thompson, Turner, Villio, Wheat, White, Willard and Zeringue.

Voting against HB39 (13): Reps Cormier, Cox, Crews, Frieman, Gadberry, Henry, Hollis, Landry, McCormick, Nelson, C. Owen, Schamerhorn and Seabaugh.

Not Voting (5): Reps Glover, Hilferty, Marcelle, Marino and Wright.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com