FILE - Louisiana Rep. Jack McFarland

Louisiana Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Winnfield, asks questions of state health officials in this 2017 file photo.

(The Center Square) – Louisiana legislators on Tuesday advanced a bill that would shift $15 million from the health department to the Louisiana Public Defender Board.

The money would be used to buy office space, which supporters said would allow the board to shift other resources into providing legal defense for people who can’t otherwise afford representation.

“This is a game-changer,” said Remy Starns, who heads the public defenders board. “It’s like giving us money every month.”

Starns said the board spends about $1.2 million every year in rent. Purchasing space with state dollars would allow the board to use that money for other needs.

Officials generally agree the state’s public defense system is underfunded, despite a recent $48 million state appropriation. The American Bar Association in 2017 reported that while 1,769 fulltime public defenders were needed to provide “reasonably effective” counsel for the state’s average annual case load, only 363 were employed.

The state has 42 public defense districts. Hurricane Laura destroyed the office in Calcasieu Parish, while others have been evicted from their offices or are at risk of being evicted, officials said.

“Every one of us has a constitutional obligation to provide for public defense,” said Rep. Jack McFarland, a Jonesboro Republican.

Lawmakers advanced the proposal with the stipulation that the public defender board would present its plan for how the money would be used to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

Tuesday’s House Appropriations meeting gave a brief preview of some of the areas for which lawmakers will seek money during the special session that started Monday. Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne mentioned cybersecurity, the Pennnington Biomedical Research Center, and the fund used to attract major events such as the Super Bowl and the Final Four.

Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, said there is a critical need to help centers that serve people who are developmentally disabled. Some are at risk of shutting down as early as next month, he said. Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, said delivering the same services in a more individualized setting would cost the state more.

Staff Reporter

David Jacobs 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.