Photos, videos: North shore flooding, rescues Saturday in Louisiana _lowres (copy)

Waters from the Tangipahoa River flood a neighborhood near Robert Saturday, March 12, 2016. A court judgment over similar flooding in 1983 still is awaiting payment by the state.

A group of Tangipahoa Parish homeowners, who flooded in 1983, asked a federal court Thursday to order Louisiana to pay a $320 million judgment that lawmakers have been ducking for 16 years.

About 1,200 homeowners and small business owners won a lawsuit that found the way Interstate 12 was built in 1976 blocked drainage and act as a dam backing up the Tangipahoa River. 21st Judicial District Judge Ray Chutz, of Amite, found on August 5, 2003 that the state Department of Transportation and Development failed to conduct any hydrological studies and ordered the state to pay $91 million plus costs and interest. The First Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment as did the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2006.

And since then state government has refused to pay. Interest has increased the amount owed year after year. The total amount owed by taxpayers now exceeds $320 million.

That amount is about 55% of the $579.6 million budget for DOTD proposed by legislators for the fiscal year beginning July 1. It’s slightly less than the $336.5 million that legislators want the Louisiana State Police to receive next year.

For many years Louisiana lawmakers said the state simply doesn’t have the money. And for years that was true. No judgments were paid.

Flood victims, most of whom live in and around Robert, watched as the Legislature and Edwards administration reversed nearly a decade of revenue deficits and spending cuts through a sales tax increase, suspension of some tax exemptions and cuts to some services. With budget surpluses coming into state coffers, lawmakers increased funding for higher education and gave schoolteachers a pay raise. BP also paid the state about $700 million to cover pubic losses from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and oil spill. Legislators diverted much of that money for long-needed highway expansions and bridge repairs.

Byard “Peck” Edwards, a Hammond lawyer who has represented the flood victims for 37 years, said the state has demonstrated that Louisiana now has enough money available to pay its legal debts. Then in 2018 the Legislature agreed to clear out the backlog of outstanding judgments against DOTD – most from where courts found that bad roads contributed to killing and maiming – all except the one in Jean Boudreaux v State of Louisiana.

Basically, the lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge argues that paying everyone but the Tangi flood victims violates constitutional protections that state government treats everyone equally, Edward said.

“This federal court can tell the state, ‘You have violated the 14th Amendment’ and can issue an order to make the state act,” said Eric R. Nowak, the New Orleans lawyer handling the federal lawsuit.

Under the state Constitution, the Louisiana Supreme Court can’t force the Legislature to appropriate the money to pay judgments against the state. That’s why legislators file bills, which need to be approved by both chambers and signed into law by the governor, to pay court judgments against the state. Multiple bills over the years have tried to get the Tangipahoa judgment paid, but those bills have never passed. The latest is House Bill 234, filed by state Rep. Bill Wheat Jr., R-Ponchatoula, asking for a legislative appropriation to pay the 1983 flood victims.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the Edwards administration’s chief budget architect, said Thursday he hasn’t seen the federal lawsuit but wouldn’t comment on active litigation if he had.

The state has been in conversations with Tangipahoa flood victims but haven’t been in a position to work out a settlement, Dardenne said.

With the advent of the COVID-19 outbreak, Dardenne’s not sure if state can pay judgments at this time. Lawmakers involved with drafting the state budget that goes into effect on July are reassessing their spending plans in light of recent business shutdowns as the state tries to stem the spread of the virus.

“It’s unfortunate that we got it on the books right as this pandemic was starting. But we understand money is available. But at some point, they need to take some responsibility. This has been going on for 16-plus years” Nowak said.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.