Considering all the litigation that has been filed against his initiatives — plus the anticipated lawsuits — it's remarkable that Gov. Bobby Jindal has time for anything outside of a courtroom.
Unlike former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who wound up on the wrong side of the law with a string of corruption charges, Jindal's time in court has more to do with his policies and his administration's questionable interpretations of the state Constitution.
This is not a healthy trend. Litigating costs lots of money, adverse decisions erode faith in the legislative process and Jindal's preference for ramming bills through the Legislature strongly suggests he's more interested in doing things his way than doing them right.
The latest legal threat comes from Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, who says he will sue to assert the Legislature's authority to review Jindal's proposed privatization agreements for public hospitals. According to a recent attorney general's opinion, the governor does not have to seek lawmakers' approval to implement privatization, but most legislators want a say in that process.
Inching closer to Edwards territory, Team Jindal soon may see a lawsuit from CNSI, the company that lost a massive $185 million state Medicaid claims processing contract after it attracted the interest of a federal grand jury. Former Health and Hospitals Secretary Bruce Greenstein, who changed the rules to allow CNSI to compete for the contract, announced his resignation when a federal subpoena came to light. Greenstein worked for CNSI before taking a job with Jindal.
When Jindal's administration canceled the CNSI contract, company officials cried foul and insisted the problem was not on their end. CNSI spokesman Sonny Cranch says a meeting is scheduled with DHH later this month, after which the likelihood of litigation will become clearer. "We're going to wait and see," he says. "But right now we don't want to predict that."
Yet another potential lawsuit involves the Artificial Reef Development Fund, into which the oil and gas industry pays to help create underwater habitats using decommissioned drilling rigs. The fund has been targeted for a $20.6 million transfer to help balance Jindal's proposed state budget for the next fiscal year. Jindal already has taken $45 million from the fund since the 2009-2010 fiscal year.
Members of the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission (all appointed by the governor) argue that the reef funds can only be used for habitat creation, not to prop up education and health care. "The administration told us they are working on ways to repay that money, and if they do, a lawsuit won't happen," says commission Chairman Ronnie Graham. "But we'll have to [sue] if they raid that fund again this year."
Meanwhile, state Reps. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, and Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, filed suit challenging Jindal's budget last year. They say his budgetary contingencies amount to one-time revenue, which the state constitution prohibits using for recurring costs. The lawmakers recently amended their suit to include a review of Jindal's current budget proposal. "After looking at the administration's budget for the coming fiscal year, it is clear that it contains the same constitutional issues as the current fiscal year budget that prompted our lawsuit," Talbot says.
Team Jindal also is in court defending a constitutional challenge to a 2009 law that provided generous repayment terms for $186 million that lawmakers and the administration withdrew from the so-called Rainy Day Fund that year. If that challenge succeeds, it could blow a $400 million hole in next fiscal year's budget (starting July 1), which already is projected to be $1.3 billion short. Lawmakers are working on a fix this session, but nothing is certain.
Then there are the judgments already rendered against Jindal's controversial education and public pension reforms. One judge ruled that Jindal's voucher program unconstitutionally diverts public funds to private schools, while another decided that his "cash balance" retirement plan, set to go into effect next fiscal year, did not receive enough votes for passage last year. Lawmakers likely will debate those matters again this year.
Jindal may never get to be president of the United States, but he's already well on his way to being president of Litigation Nation.
— Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.