Legislators file suit over state operating budget

Two Louisiana legislators filed suit Tuesday asking a Baton Rouge judge to declare the state’s $25 billion operating budget unconstitutional.

The lawsuit by Republican state Reps. Kirk Talbot, of River Ridge, and Cameron Henry, of Metairie, questions — among other things — the budget’s apparent reliance on uncertain funding such as finding a buyer to pay $35 million for a New Orleans hospital.

“The budget that was passed by the Legislature is constitutional, doesn’t spend more dollars than the state takes in and protects higher education and health care services,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said Tuesday in a prepared statement. “It doesn’t make sense to make unnecessary cuts to health care and higher education.”

In November, Talbot, Henry and 17 other House members asked state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell to weigh in on whether the budget — which funds hospitals, colleges and other public services — is constitutional. Caldwell’s office declined last month to issue a legal opinion on the matter.

“Louisiana’s budget crisis is rooted in an unconstitutional budget process,” Talbot, vice chairman of the Commerce Committee, said Tuesday in a prepared statement. “Chronic budget deficits, midyear budget cuts, and fund sweeps result from use of funds that exceed the revenue forecast as well as contingency and non-recurring funds in the budget.

“Many legislators warned that these practices would have negative consequences for our core budget priorities, and their concerns have been validated by events,” he added. “Judicial review of these matters is the logical next step in our efforts to fix our broken budget process.”

Division of Administration spokesman Michael DiResto warned Tuesday that the lawsuit jeopardizes protections in the current-year budget for higher education and health care, threatening to force further cuts to higher education of roughly $59 million, and further cuts to health care of approximately $286 million in state dollars — which amounts to $831 million, including the federal match.

The crafting of the state budget ignited a struggle between a faction of Republicans in the House and the Jindal administration over the use of alleged contingencies and one-time, or nonrecurring, dollars.

For example, the governor banked on using the proceeds from leasing New Orleans Adolescent Hospital to help pay health care treatment for the poor, an expense the state must meet year after year.

Nearly six months after the budget went into effect, the lease still is not final. Appraisals also show the hospital is worth $14 million less than the Jindal administration hopes to collect by renting it.

The budget dispute stalled debate during last year’s legislative session. Ultimately, the governor largely got the budget he wanted.

The suit contends the state’s general appropriation bill for the fiscal year that started July 1 exceeded by $240 million the amount of money an official state panel determined was available to spend.

The suit also claims the budget made improper use of nonrecurring money, or dollars that likely will materialize only once.

The suit has been assigned to state District Judge Tim Kelley. It names the state, Caldwell and Treasurer John Kennedy as defendants.