BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As Louisiana agencies slashed spending on services over the last decade, state legislative offices managed to sock away hefty surpluses, quietly amassing $85 million in the bank without mentioning the money in their annual budget hearings.
The balances aren't included in the yearly legislative spending plans, when House and Senate leaders described tight financial straits in their offices and growing costs. The built-up cash hasn't been subject to the public attention lawmakers have shown to executive branch accounts, where they've scrutinized money that rolls over from year to year in budget hearings.
It's hard to determine how much money legislative agencies have at any given time because they don't keep their funds in accounts with the state treasury like most other state agencies. But the surplus dollars are buried in the Legislature's annual financial reports, the latest of which came out Monday.
"For a separate branch of government, I think it's appropriate to have some fund balances in case there's some tight times and in case there's a governor who decides he doesn't want to fund the Legislature," Senate President John Alario, a Westwego Republican, told The Associated Press.
The House was sitting on a $32 million fund balance when the last budget year ended June 30, according to its most recent audit, while the Senate had $11 million in the bank . The financial report for the Legislative Budgetary Control Council, which covers expenses shared by the House and Senate, showed that agency with about $42 million in its accounts.
"I knew we had money in the accounts, but I didn't know it was that much," Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, a Ville Platte Democrat, said when asked about the audits.
Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras and House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry didn't return requests for comment about the financial reports.
Beyond the what-if scenario, Alario said he'd like to use about $40 million for a new legislative auditor's office building across the street from the Louisiana Capitol, where remains of a demolished office structure are used for parking.
Asked if lawmakers might earmark some money to help with needed repairs on the exterior of the Capitol, where a temporary walkway protects the public entering the front doors from crumbling mortar, Alario said that could be considered. But he made no commitments to finance the work, estimated to cost up to $60 million.
"The building actually belongs to the executive branch," he said. "We haven't talked a whole lot about it because it's just coming to our attention how serious the problem was."
The financial documents show the House and Senate expect some money to pay for leave time owed to employees and retirement obligations. The House reports it intends to use dollars for computer upgrades and renovations to the House chamber and committee rooms. But even with that anticipated spending, audits show the "unassigned fund balance" tops $53 million.
Appropriations Committee member Jack McFarland, a Winnfield Republican, was unaware of the full size of the accumulated surpluses. He said he's been told a balance exists in case disagreements with a governor stall passage of the legislative budget, to "keep people working until the dispute can be resolved." He said he expects the House will spend a small portion of its money to fill vacant jobs after losing workers to private industry.
Lawmakers passed an $85 million spending plan for legislative operations in the fiscal year that began July 1, similar to the prior year budget. The agencies get an additional $10 million annually from a 2008 earmark not included in the legislative budget bill.
Louisiana's Supreme Court also is sitting on a multimillion-dollar surplus, nearly $58 million, according to the most recent audit for the budget year ending in June 2017.
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