House shifts $32 million to public defense, disabled, other needs

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

The Louisiana House of Representatives on Friday shifted about $32 million in health department spending to other needs, including public defense and centers for developmentally disabled residents.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration already had set aside the money as part of a deficit avoidance plan, Appropriations Chairman Jerome Zeringue said. While officials had feared mid-year budget cuts would be needed amid the COVID-19-related economic uncertainty, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne says cuts won’t be necessary.

The Louisiana Public Defender Board will get $15 million to build or purchase office space. Many of the state’s public defenders are operating out of rented spaces at a total cost of about $1.2 million per year; lawmakers hope to eliminate that expense so more resources can be put toward providing counsel for defendants who can’t afford to hire attorneys.

The Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget will have to approve the board’s plan to spend the money.

The next-largest item included in the supplemental spending bill is $6.2 million for centers that serve the developmentally disabled. Most have laid off employees and many may be about to shut down, Rep. Rick Edmonds says.

Other items include $7 million for cybersecurity, $2 million for the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, $3 million for the state’s major events fund used to attract major events like the Super Bowl, and $2.5 million for City Park in New Orleans, which despite its name is a state park.

The Louisiana Legislature on Monday began a special session which must end by 6 p.m. Oct. 27.