Group challenges budget

Nineteen Louisiana House legislators asked state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell on Monday to decide whether the state’s $25 billion operating budget is unconstitutional.

The legislators raised a number of issues, including the budget’s apparent reliance on uncertain funding, such as a buyer agreeing to pay $35 million for a New Orleans hospital.

The request for an attorney general’s opinion, which does not carry the weight of law, resurrects a fight that raged between a faction of lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal during this year’s legislative session.

“I’m sure they’re tired of us going down on the House floor and saying it’s unconstitutional. Maybe they’ll be vindicated,” state Rep. Kirk Talbot said, referring to the Jindal administration.

Jindal declined an interview request.

But in prepared statement released late Monday, Jindal stated: “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 healthcare services. It doesn’t make sense to make unnecessary cuts to healthcare and higher education.”

Talbot, R-River Ridge, led the push for an attorney general’s opinion just months after sponsoring one of the pieces in the governor’s education package. He said he respectfully disagrees with the governor’s budget approach.

Joining him in seeking Caldwell’s input are state Reps. Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales, Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, Cameron Henry, R-New Orleans, Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, Nick Lorusso, R-New Orleans, Sherman Mack, R-Albany, Greg Miller, R-Norco, Jim Morris, R-Oil City, J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodaux, Clay Schexnayder, R-Sorrento, John Schroder, R-Covington, and Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport.

The letter to the attorney general raises three issues:

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.

To balance the budget, the Jindal administration swept money from funds scattered across state government. Sweeping the funds depended on the passage of legislation that appeared to also include the proceeds from the sale of a New Orleans hospital. State law prohibits appropriations based on contingencies.

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

State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, said a favorable attorney general’s opinion would give legislators ammunition for changing how the budget is crafted. “We said it dozens of time during session ... We strongly believe we are in violation of the constitution,” Geymann said.

Geymann and Morris relinquished committee assignments in June after clashing with the Jindal administration over the structure of the budget.

During the session, the dispute held up the advancement of the budget that funds colleges, hospitals and other public services.

Short of the money needed to keep services at their current level, the governor proposed selling property and gathering dollars from funds scattered across state government to fill the gaps. Geymann, Morris and others objected, arguing state government needs to shrink rather than rely on a patchwork approach to the state budget.

The budget debate stalled for two days in the Louisiana House and resulted in the purge of one-time dollars from the spending plan. Ultimately, with the state Senate’s help, Jindal got a budget similar to the one he proposed.

Since then, Jindal has angered legislators by making substantial health care budget cuts without involving them in his decisions. An effort to hold a special session to review the governor’s decisions died.