March 6, 2014 04:43

State lawmakers will not appeal a judge's ruling that it was improper to use $3.7 million from a probation and parole officers' retirement fund to balance the state's operating budget.

 

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The Louisiana Legislature will not appeal a judge's ruling that it was improper to use $3.7 million from a probation and parole officers' retirement fund to balance the state's operating budget.

A Baton Rouge judge ruled in November that the maneuver by lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal was unconstitutional.

At the time of the ruling, the Jindal administration said the state would appeal and expected the decision to be overturned. But legislative leaders chose not to take the issue to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

"I talked to several of my legislative leaders, and we just came to the conclusion that the judge had ruled and we didn't want to waste any more taxpayer dollars on an appeal," House Speaker Chuck Kleckley said Wednesday.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols' office issued a statement saying the Jindal administration is abiding by the decision of lawmakers.

To cope with repeated budget shortfalls in recent years, Jindal and lawmakers have drained dollars from funds that had dedicated fees and other balances planned for specific projects or purposes. The maneuvers are called "fund sweeps."

The Louisiana Probation and Parole Officers Association sued after a 2012 bill shifted a $3.7 million balance in its retirement fund into the state's operating budget to pay for other programs and services.

The association argued that the fees paid into the retirement fund had been converted into general revenue as if from a tax. It claimed the maneuver violated the Louisiana Constitution. A district judge agreed.

Similar transfers have been made from dozens of funds that capture dollars generated from fees and fines. The governor and lawmakers spent the money in ways that differ from the funds' intended purposes.

By declining to ask the Supreme Court to look at the lower court judge's ruling, the Legislature avoided the risk of the high court suggesting the overall fund sweep tactic is inappropriate. Kleckley said that wasn't part of the discussions in choosing not to file an appeal.

The Public Service Commission also is suing over a similar removal of money from its dedicated accounts. That lawsuit is pending.

Though the officers association succeeded in its lawsuit, the group won't be repaid unless lawmakers vote to return the money. A repayment proposal by Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley, will be considered in the three-month legislative session that begins Monday.

Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said he'll stand by whatever lawmakers in the House decide.

"I'm not going to push it to get settled," he said.

Walter Smith III, the lawyer representing the probation and parole officers association, said he wasn't surprised the Legislature didn't appeal the ruling since lawmakers can choose whether to comply with the ruling and repay the money.

"I'm really surprised that more suits aren't being filed. But the problem is that you still have to get a bill to give the judgment effect," Smith said.

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