The failure of a constitutional amendment involving the state’s “rainy day” fund could lead to a sizable hole in the state budget.
Baton Rouge attorney Kyle Keegan said Tuesday that he plans to move forward with a lawsuit filed after legislators took $198 million from the fund two years ago without replenishing it.
The lawsuit amounts to a complicated legal dispute over the trigger for oil and gas revenue to be deposited into the “rainy day” fund, formally called the Budget Stabilization Fund.
At issue is whether $150 million to $200 million in oil and gas revenue already earmarked to pay the state’s expenses will have to instead be set aside for a rainy day.
The Budget Stabilization Fund was set up to tide the state over during tough economic times. However, a problem arises when the state falls short of money at the same time revenue from oil and gas is high.
The fund has a cap. When that cap is not met, oil and gas revenue in excess of $850 million is supposed to be deposited into the fund.
Two years ago, the constitution would have allowed legislators to take money from the “rainy day” fund to deal with a budget shortfall but then required them to direct oil and gas revenue into the fund to reach the cap.
One legislator likened the situation to taking out a loan and then repaying it before leaving the bank with the money.
Instead of following the constitution, legislators said a recent state law allowed the money not to have to be deposited until an extremely high benchmark of revenue collections was achieved. The lawsuit’s plaintiffs, who include former state Rep. Ron Gomez of Lafayette, disagreed.
The amendment on Saturday’s ballot aimed to settle the dispute by giving legislators five years to replenish the fund. Keegan put the lawsuit on hold until election returns were counted.
The proposal failed when 51 percent voted against it.
“It means the suit will go forward now,” Keegan said Tuesday.
Keegan said he will ask the state District Court in Baton Rouge to rule in favor of the plaintiffs without holding a trial. The legal action is known as a summary judgment.
Keegan said the fund can be replenished even though doing so would create a hole in the state operating budget.
“The last I checked, government has the power to generate revenue and make cuts,” he said.
Gov. Bobby Jindal said he is willing to work with legislators and stakeholders to improve the “rainy day” fund. He said his administration will fight the lawsuit.
“Our legal team tells us we have a very strong case,” the governor said.
The amendment’s sponsor, Senate President Joel Chaisson II, said a legal win by the plaintiffs would blow a huge hole in the budget that keeps hospitals running, schools in session and colleges operating.
“If they prevail, it’s going to be fairly disastrous for the state fisc,” he said.