Judge tosses lawsuit over state operating budget

A judge Wednesday threw out a lawsuit that two Louisiana lawmakers filed earlier this year seeking to have the state operating budget for the current 2012-13 fiscal year declared unconstitutional.

Republican state Reps. Kirk Talbot, of River Ridge, and Cameron Henry, of Metairie, also sought to prevent the continued reliance on what they call uncertain funding in the proposed 2013-14 operating budget.

Kyle Keegan, an attorney for the two legislators, said he will ask the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge to review and reverse state District Judge Tim Kelley’s decision. The judge said his ruling negated the need for a scheduled May 17 trial of the suit.

“We just get to the court of appeal quicker, which is where we were going to end up,” Keegan said outside the 19th Judicial District Courthouse in Baton Rouge.

Talbot’s and Henry’s suit is part of continuing criticism from conservative House Republicans of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budgeting tactics, specifically his use of one-time, patchwork funding to pay for ongoing programs and services.

“We’re appropriating money that’s not there,” Talbot said outside the downtown courthouse.

Kelley, in a ruling from the bench following a 2 1/2-hour hearing, agreed with arguments from state Division of Administration attorney Elizabeth Murrill that the filing of the lawsuit in January was premature because the current fiscal year does not end until June 30, and the next fiscal year does not start until July 1.

“He dismissed the entire case,” Murrill said outside Kelley’s courtroom. “We think the case law supports that.”

Kelley also noted that state officials certified in an affidavit that a decision in favor of the two legislators would create a deficit in the state budget. The judge said Louisiana law prevents him from issuing an order that would cause a state agency to go into deficit.

The suit asked the court to declare the state’s current $25 billion operating budget unconstitutional because of its reliance on nonrecurring revenue, one-time money and contingent appropriations.

“Someone’s got to say what they did is constitutional or not,” Keegan argued to Kelley.

“We have the entire (fiscal) year to collect all the projected revenue,” Murrill countered, noting that the current fiscal year does not conclude until the end of June.

Murrill also argued the $24.7 billion proposed state operating budget for the next fiscal year that the governor presented in February is merely a recommendation to the Legislature.

“All revenue in the budget is projected revenue,” she said.

Keegan argued that the Legislature could use some judicial “guidance” while the current session continues.

“I think it would be helpful to the Legislature before this final (budget) bill is passed,” he said.

Kelley told Keegan at one point during the hearing, “I have the nagging feeling that you’re asking me to change what the existing law is because you don’t like what the existing law is.”

Murrill accused Talbot and Henry of “trying to chill the functions of the Legislature.”

Jindal said in January after the suit was filed that the 2012-13 state operating budget passed by the Legislature “is constitutional, doesn’t spend more dollars than the state takes in and protects higher education and health care services.”

The operating budget funds hospitals, colleges and other public services.

Talbot and Henry contend that chronic budget deficits, midyear budget cuts, and fund sweeps result from the use of contingency and nonrecurring funds, as well as funds that exceed the revenue forecast.