Senators push to override Jindal

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 11, 2009

BATON ROUGE (AP) — A Democratic state senator asked lawmakers Tuesday to override Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s refusal to accept nearly $100 million in federal stimulus money to expand unemployment benefits.

Sen. Eric LaFleur sent a letter to his colleagues requesting support for a resolution that would notify the federal government that Louisiana intends to take the $98.4 million in unemployment dollars.

‘‘If we reject these funds, Louisiana taxpayers will be paying to subsidize and support unemployment compensation in states such as California, where Gov. (Arnold) Schwarzenegger has already signaled his intention to accept the funds,’’ LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, wrote.

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The money would give unemployment benefits to thousands of people who normally wouldn’t be eligible for them and would expand benefits to some others, including those with dependents.

Acceptance of the money would require a change in state law to let those individuals get the benefits. Jindal said that would cost businesses more in taxes, but LaFleur disagrees.

Overriding the governor would be difficult, requiring not just legislative approval of LaFleur’s resolution but also of a bill to change the state’s unemployment law — and a two-thirds vote of lawmakers if Jindal vetoes the bill, which the governor has said he would do.

‘‘That’s no small task,’’ said Rep. Gary Smith, D-Norco. Smith said lawmakers should look at the stimulus money before agreeing with the governor’s rejection of any of it, though he hasn’t said whether Jindal’s decision should be overridden.

It’s unclear when the resolution would have to be passed for lawmakers to override Jindal. Several Democratic lawmakers said they would support the resolution, but Republican lawmakers recently issued a statement backing Jindal’s stance on the stimulus.

Despite being an outspoken opponent of the stimulus bill, Jindal has indicated he intends to tap into at least $2.4 billion of Louisiana’s share of the stimulus. The unemployment money is the only stimulus money Jindal has said Louisiana won’t accept, though he said state agencies still were reviewing the restrictions on many other stimulus funds the state can receive.

Jindal said he will refuse the money because the law change would force businesses to pay higher unemployment taxes once federal dollars run out. Other governors have raised similar concerns.

‘‘We think it would be a mistake to make a permanent change in state spending to get temporary federal dollars. We think it would be a mistake to raise taxes on businesses,’’ the governor said Tuesday.

There is disagreement on that interpretation, however, in a debate that hinges on legal analysis of a small passage in the lengthy stimulus bill.

LaFleur said Louisiana can change its law to expand the unemployment benefits until the stimulus money runs out, then reverse the law change. He said Louisiana enacted — then retracted — other programs to dole out federal aid after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

‘‘We didn’t continue all the programs started after Katrina. Once the federal dollars ended, we didn’t continue spending,’’ he said in a phone interview.

But Jindal echoed the concerns of his labor secretary, Tim Barfield, saying the state risks having to repay the money if federal officials deem the move a violation of the stimulus law. Jindal said federal labor department officials won’t assure Louisiana that it wouldn’t be required to return the money.

‘‘They cannot rule out the possibility that they won’t come back to recoup those dollars if we change our law back in three years,’’ Jindal said.

LaFleur cited a statement issued by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, who helped craft the stimulus bill. The statement says states that change their unemployment laws to receive stimulus money and then undo the change don’t have to repay federal funds.

‘‘The risk that (Barfield’s) talked about, I think it’s been clarified that it doesn’t exist,’’ LaFleur said.

Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, said he won’t oppose the Jindal administration on the unemployment provision.

‘‘I trust them,’’ he said Tuesday.

Walsworth lives in north Louisiana, the region hardest hit by the recession. Unemployment tops 10 percent in several north Louisiana parishes. Noting the large job losses, Walsworth asked Barfield last week to review whether there’s any way for the state to accept the unemployment money without causing a tax increase on businesses.

‘‘Right now is not the time we ought to be raising taxes on businesses,’’ Walsworth said.