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AG refuses to enter debate over budget tactics

Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- Attorney General Buddy Caldwell's office isn't lodging an opinion about whether Gov. Bobby Jindal's budgeting tactics are in line with the state constitution, according to a letter released Wednesday.

Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, was notified that the attorney general's office declined to rule on whether the state budget uses unconstitutional sources of financing. The letter was in response to a request from Talbot and 18 other members of the Louisiana House who criticize Jindal's use of one-time, piecemeal funding to pay for continuing government programs.

Assistant Attorney General Richard McGimsey said the attorney general's office wouldn't render an opinion because the office would be required to defend the budget in court if a lawsuit challenged it.

"While your opinion request raises issues regarding the legality of the state budget, 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," McGimsey wrote to Talbot.

He also said the attorney general's office doesn't generally offer an opinion when a lawsuit appears imminent, which McGimsey said seems likely in the budget dispute.

Talbot said it's too early to say whether lawmakers would head to court to settle the issue.

"We don't want to do that, and that wasn't the whole intention," he said. "Any talks of a lawsuit are premature."

The refusal to render an opinion keeps the Republican Caldwell from wading into a debate that has divided members of the GOP.

Talbot and the other House members filed their request for guidance from the attorney general's office in mid-November. The request was the latest strategy in a continuing struggle between a group of conservative House Republicans, calling themselves "fiscal hawks," and the GOP governor.

In his request to the attorney general, Talbot said the current budget appears to violate the Louisiana Constitution and state law by spending more money than what was recognized by the state's income estimating panel. He also said the budget violates constitutional limits on money deemed "nonrecurring," by funneling dollars through a series of shell games.

Talbot said he believes that if the attorney general's office thought the Jindal administration budget decisions were appropriate, an opinion would have been issued saying so and ending the discussion.

"Everybody's just kind of crawled into a hole on this one," Talbot said. He added, "We were hoping that (the attorney general) would rule on it either way and that we could move forward, because we have the same argument every year in session."

The "fiscal hawks" have repeatedly 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 in the current budget year.

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 one-time dollars in this year's budget come from the sale of state-owned buildings, loan repayments, legal settlements, unused fund balances and other available pools of financing.