BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- The Louisiana House unanimously agreed to override Gov. Bobby Jindal's rejection of $98 million in federal stimulus dollars to expand unemployment benefits. But it's unlikely most representatives even knew what they were voting for.
Rep. Avon Honey, D-Baton Rouge, quietly slipped the language to sidestep Jindal's refusal of the stimulus dollars into a worker's compensation bill on the House floor Monday evening in the final minutes of House work for the day. There was little discussion about what the changes did.
"The amendment is merely adding language for the requirements for ARRA, and I ask for your favorable adoption," Honey told lawmakers, never explaining that ARRA stands for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal stimulus act.
The House adopted the amendment without questions and then quickly approved the bill, sending it to the Senate for debate with a 99-0 vote. During the final vote, House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, was heard asking an aide, "What does the amendment do?" The aide responded that she didn't know.
Jindal's labor secretary, Tim Barfield, released a statement saying the move "flies in the face of the open, honest government our people deserve." Barfield said the Republican governor would veto the bill if it received Senate passage.
Jindal has opposed taking the stimulus dollars because he says accepting those funds would force businesses to pay higher unemployment taxes. The issue has become a partisan divide in the Legislature, particularly after Jindal spoke against the entire stimulus act nationally.
"It is deeply disappointing that a measure to significantly raise taxes on our Louisiana businesses passed through the House without any discussion ... The people of Louisiana deserve an open, honest debate on this issue, not sneaky tactics," Barfield said.
Supporters of an override say unemployed workers need the expanded benefits to take care of their families and cope with the national recession.
The stimulus money would give unemployment benefits to thousands of people who normally wouldn't be eligible for them, like certain part-time workers, and it would expand benefits to some others, including those with dependents.
Honey's amended bill would change Louisiana's unemployment laws so the state could be eligible for the expanded benefits money.
Opponents argue the effects on businesses could cripple their ability to weather the recession. Companies' unemployment tax rates are tied to three years of their unemployment claims history. Barfield said if benefits are expanded, businesses' claims history could increase, driving up their tax rates in the future.
Several Republicans said they didn't know what they approved in Honey's bill.
Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Jefferson, said he would have spoken against the amendment if he had known what it did.
"This tax increase on our businesses in order to use temporary federal stimulus funds is one of the worst things we could do for our state's growing economy, and at the very least the people of our state deserve to hear a debate on this matter," Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, said in a statement released by Jindal's office.