Lawsuit: Use of retiree money unconstitutional

Louisiana’s adult probation and parole officers are asking a judge in Baton Rouge to declare a piece of 2012 legislation unconstitutional and order the return of several million dollars swept into the state’s general fund from a retirement fund for the officers.

House Bill 822 of last year’s legislative session is called a fund sweep because it takes dollars from funds across state government.

HB 822 directed state Treasurer John Kennedy to deposit up to $205 million in leftover state dollars into the state’s “rainy day” fund, which serves as a savings account to tide the state over during tough financial times. The governor signed the bill into law last summer.

Legislative defenders of the fund sweep said it was necessary to prevent deep cuts to health care and higher education.

But the Louisiana Probation and Parole Officers Association contends in a lawsuit filed in the 19th Judicial District Court that the fees collected and maintained in the Adult Probation and Parole Officer Retirement Fund “were dedicated for the limited and specific purpose of funding enhanced retirement benefits of adult probation and parole officers.”

“House Bill 822 ... includes the ‘sweep’ of the fees in the dedicated source fund and directs that these monies be deposited into the State general fund to be used as revenue as if from a tax. This conversion of fee dollars into tax dollars imposes an unconstitutional levy of a tax on the fee payers,” the suit claims.

“The citizens of Louisiana should not be misled into believing that fees paid into a certain fund are for a dedicated and specific purpose when in fact those statutorily dedicated fees are being converted into general fund revenue dollars,” adds the suit, which was filed against the state Legislature.

Amanda Larkins, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office, said Thursday the office was unable to comment on the suit.

Baton Rouge lawyer Walter Smith III, who is representing the association of probation and parole officers, said HB 822 resulted in $3.7 million being swept last year into the state’s general fund from the retirement fund for adult probation and parole officers.

“At the time, that was all that was in there,” Smith noted.

“I know the state needs money, but these guys have one of the most dangerous jobs,” he said.

The suit, which has been assigned to state District Judge William Morvant, notes that the state constitution prohibits the Legislature from introducing and enacting measures creating or increasing an existing tax or fee during regular sessions in even numbered years.

The suit also argues that “the complete redirection of the fee monies for a wholly different purpose than for which they were assessed creates a ‘new fee’ under the Constitution and also cannot be introduced or enacted in an even numbered year regular session.

The suit asks for a judicial declaration that it was unconstitutional for the 2012 Legislature “to take special fees paid into dedicated funds ... and apply these special fees to some other purpose.”