BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Nineteen members of the Louisiana House, nearly all Republicans, asked the attorney general Monday whether the state's budget uses unconstitutional sources of financing. The move lodges a direct challenge to Gov. Bobby Jindal's budgeting tactics.
The request sent to Attorney General Buddy Caldwell is the latest strategy in a continuing struggle between a group of conservative House Republicans and the GOP governor over the use of one-time, piecemeal funding to pay for continuing government programs.
"Legislators are concerned whether Louisiana's state budget is constitutional and lawful," Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, said in a statement.
Talbot, usually a Jindal ally, filed the opinion request with Caldwell's office on behalf of a list of 18 Republicans and one lawmaker without party affiliation in the House.
A group of conservative House Republicans who call themselves "fiscal hawks" have criticized the patchwork funding as inappropriate, saying it's irresponsible to use money that isn't certain to appear year after year. But they have been unsuccessful in blocking use of the money, including about $270 million for ongoing expenses in the fiscal year that began July 1.
The Jindal administration said public colleges and health services would have faced devastating cuts without the funding, and a majority of lawmakers agreed to use the money to stave off the reductions. Senators voted unanimously for a budget that included the patchwork financing.
The dollars come from the sale of state-owned buildings, loan repayments, legal settlements, unused fund balances and other available pools of financing.
Talbot's letter notes that the Louisiana Constitution and state law require a balanced budget and say legislative appropriations can't exceed the state's official revenue forecast. He said the current 2012-13 budget spends about $240 million above what was recognized by the state's income estimating panel, and he claims that's a violation of state law.
He said the state constitution includes limits on how to use money deemed "nonrecurring," and the budget violates those restrictions by funneling dollars through a series of shell games to get around the limits.
He also questions whether some of the land sales and unused fund balances even exist, such as $35 million from the sale or lease of the state-owned New Orleans Adolescent Hospital and $56 million from insurance proceeds that the state hasn't yet received.
"Their predictable failure to materialize will result in a budget deficit and year-end funding cuts, cuts that could have been better planned for and anticipated had the budget been crafted in accordance with the Constitution," Talbot wrote.
Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Bates defended the budget.
"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," Bates said in an email. "It doesn't make sense to make unnecessary cuts to health care and higher education."
Previous governors have used similar budget maneuvers with one-time financing, but Jindal has run into stronger criticism from newer lawmakers, who say the governor hasn't lived up to his claims of fiscal conservatism and blame the piecemeal funding for repeated budget shortfalls.