Lawmakers Wait to Hear From Auditors on Surplus

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers sidestepped a decision Friday on whether to accept claims from Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration that the state closed last year's books with a nearly $179 million surplus, a figure viewed with skepticism.

         The Legislature's joint budget committee instead decided to wait until their auditors comb through the numbers. The Legislative Auditor's Office doesn't expect to have its review completed until the end of December.

         "At this point, I'm going to say that we take no action today on this item. There's no rush to take action on it," said Rep. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, chairman of the budget committee.

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         Barry Dusse, director of the governor's Office of Planning and Budget, presented the surplus figure to the committee. Though Jindal's chief budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, attended the meeting and offered a full presentation, lawmakers didn't want it and spent fewer than five minutes on the entire discussion.

         The Jindal administration says it identified millions that hadn't been calculated over several years.

         But the Legislature's financial advisers have been reticent to immediately agree to the numbers submitted by the administration, questioning whether all the dollars exist and whether the money is available for spending even if it sits in state bank accounts.

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         Treasurer John Kennedy says the calculation method used by the Jindal administration strays from Louisiana's traditional accounting practices, which would show the state with a nearly $141 million deficit from the budget year that ended June 30.

         The difference between the two figures is more than $300 million.

         Deciding which figure is more appropriate will determine if the state must cut services and spending to close a budget gap from last year or if the state has money to help deal with a looming budget shortfall next year.

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         The findings of the auditor's office review are expected to be presented to lawmakers in January, leaving the question of a surplus versus a deficit lingering for several months.

         But the dollars couldn't be spent anyway until the state's income forecasting panel also signs off on the surplus figure, a decision that won't be made until after the auditors finish their review.

         Lawmakers wouldn't be able to spend any of the money until they return for their regular legislative session in April.

         "We have time to make sure that this number is an accurate number. I think that serves the process much better today," Fannin said.

         The Jindal administration hasn't released a specific list of where it located the extra money to reach its surplus figure, but said 127 agencies have dollars from fees and other self-generated sources of cash that haven't been spent or calculated for years.

         Kennedy says he's concerned the administration has manufactured a surplus to help deal with the state's ongoing budget problems

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte

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