AG refuses to wade into budget fight

State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell will stay on the sidelines of a monthslong squabble between legislators and Gov. Bobby Jindal over the state budget.

Caldwell’s office released a letter Wednesday refusing to issue an opinion on whether the $25 billion state operating budget is unconstitutional. The budget funds hospitals, colleges and other public services.

“All laws passed by the legislature are presumed constitutional and it is the role of the Attorney General to defend the constitutionality of such laws,” Assistant Attorney General Richard L. McGimsey wrote.

McGimsey added that his office refrains from issuing opinions when “the prospect of litigation appears imminent.”

The implication is that the dispute will land in court, tasking the Attorney General’s Office with arguing in favor of the budget’s constitutionality.

Nineteen Louisiana House legislators asked Caldwell to look at a number of issues, including the budget’s apparent reliance on uncertain funding, such as finding a buyer to pay $35 million for a New Orleans hospital.

They contended the governor thwarted the constitution.

“Unfortunately, the elephant is still in the room and there’s no more clarity,” state Rep. Kirk Talbot said.

Talbot, R-River Ridge, led the push for an attorney general’s opinion despite aligning himself with the Jindal administration on an education package earlier this year.

The crafting of the state budget ignited into 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 for the poor’s health care treatment, 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 the legislative session. Ultimately, the governor largely got the budget he wanted. The fight then shifted to the Attorney General’s Office, where Republican legislators hoped to get ammunition in the form of a favorable legal opinion.

Like Jindal, Caldwell is a Republican.

“It appears from your request that this is a matter that is or will be presented to the courts for determination and therefore not at this time an issue to be addressed in an Attorney General Opinion,” McGimsey wrote.

McGimsey noted that Talbot engaged an attorney.

State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, and one of the leading challengers to the governor’s budget, expressed disappointment at the attorney general’s decision.

While attorney general opinions do not carry the weight of law, they are influential.

Talbot said he talked to attorneys because he is not an attorney himself and wanted legal analysis. “Maybe that gave a false impression that our ultimate goal is litigation,” he said.

Talbot said he is uncertain whether he will pursue the matter in court.

He said it is noteworthy Caldwell refrained from declaring the budget constitutional. He declined to speculate on why Caldwell is staying out of the dispute.

“I respect Buddy Caldwell,” Talbot said. “He’s always handled himself professionally. I don’t think he would duck something.”