Who would have imagined that the biggest challenge to Gov. Bobby Jindal's grip on the Louisiana Legislature would come from his fellow Republicans? Every governor has a loyal opposition, but usually it takes the form of the opposing party.
Not so for Jindal.
Oh, sure, legislative Democrats do their best to give the governor hell, but their efforts have fallen far short of what a group of fiscally conservative, mostly Republican House members have been able to do recently.
Calling themselves "fiscal hawks," the lawmakers tied up the governor's budget in the House during the annual legislative session earlier this year. When Jindal succeeded in running their procedural and political blockade (with the help of Democrats, no less), many Capitol observers concluded that the hawks were done. Last week, 19 of them proved that they were far from finished.
Led by state Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, they sent a blunt, detailed letter to state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, asking him to issue an "advisory opinion" on the constitutionality of Jindal's 2012-13 state operating budget. Their letter alleges that Jindal and his legislative allies used a "revenue shell game" to balance a budget that otherwise would have been out of whack — and thus illegal under the state constitution — by several hundred million dollars.
They have asked Caldwell specifically to opine on the following questions:
• Whether the current-year budget violates the Louisiana Constitution and state law by appropriating funds in excess of the Revenue Estimating Conference's official revenue forecast;
• Whether the constitution's prohibition against "contingent appropriations" is violated by including appropriations contingent on the passage of other bills and/or the inclusion of appropriations based on the occurrence of "highly unlikely or uncertain" events, such as the sale of New Orleans Adolescent Hospital (NOAH); and
• Whether the constitutional prohibitions against using nonrecurring revenues to pay for recurring expenses are violated by the practice of transferring nonrecurring funds into the state general fund — and then replacing them immediately with new nonrecurring revenues.
"The net effect is that nonrecurring revenues have been misappropriated for general use, clearly contravening the purpose" of the constitutional bar against using one-time money for recurring expenses, the letter states.
"This isn't about how much we tax or how much we spend," Talbot told me last week. "We can have that debate some other time. This is about how we go about spending taxpayers' money and whether it's done properly."
In support of their queries, the hawks cite two examples of the current budget relying upon "contingent" funding sources that are, "at best, highly speculative or, at worst, essentially fictional." One is the proposed sale of NOAH for $35 million; the other is $56 million in "excess property insurance recovery" in the state's Self-Insurance Fund. The letter scoffs at both notions.
"In fact, no one actually expects the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital to sell or lease for an amount close to $35 million during the 2012-2013 fiscal year," the letter states, adding that a separate bill calls for a "dubious" insurance recovery that is unlikely to materialize in the current fiscal year.
Jindal's press office defended the budget. Caldwell had no comment, which is appropriate. The attorney general historically refuses to answer constitutional queries because he has a duty to defend all state laws (including those with which he may disagree) if they are challenged in court.
The hawks may not get what they want out of the AG, but they have at least laid the groundwork for a possible court challenge to the budget — and put Jindal on notice that this fight is far from over.