BATON ROUGE – Former state Sen. Ben Bagert recently spoke out in favor of House Bill 105, a controversial measure that would effectively create a separate budget for the Louisiana Attorney General's Office, removing that power from Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Critics have called the bill a "power grab" for Attorney General Jeff Landry, something Landry has vehemently denied.
After reading a local editorial on the subject, Bagert, who now practices law in New Orleans, said in a letter to the editor that the intention of the bill has been mischaracterized, and is perfectly legal and constitutional.
"What really made me spill my coffee when reading the editorial in The Advocate was the paragraph that stated the separate budget plan is unconstitutional," Bagert recently told the Louisiana Record. "That's not right. It's just wrong."
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Baggert argues that Article III, Sec. 16 of the Louisiana constitution only requires that appropriations for "general operations" of the government be itemized. He also said there is a limit to the purposes for appropriating state funds.
Landry testified on the House floor that H.B. 105 will be an attempt to better manage his office's budget. He has said publicly that the budget is still accountable to the legislature.
Bagert concurred, saying the bill is the opposite of a power grab -- actually a release of power from the governor's office.
Traditionally, the governor has submitted, as required by the Louisiana constitution, a general appropriations bill for the budget of the entire state, including all departments. It is not illegal, however, to appropriate funds to be managed by the attorney general, an elected official, as long as the funds are line timed, Bagert said. The legislature also may decide later on to trim the budget as needed when expectations fall short.
"The attorney general is the state's civil lawyer and is an elected official," Bagert said. "I think it is a good thing to have elected officials in a separate appropriations bill. This would actually be an escape from a power grab. Somebody should be able to trim things when necessary. The legislature confers these powers over the budget anyway."
Bagert argues that the governor's office should not have so much influence over a duly elected constitutional officer's role. He argues that Landry's office and actions in that office, including management of a budget, should be accountable to the voters, not the governor's office.
"The governor shouldn't manage the AG's budget just as the AG shouldn't manage the governor's budget," he said. "The AG must make decisions as the civil lawyer for the state of Louisiana. The AG's power comes from the electorate and he/she should be accountable to them. Why should the governor be controlling the purse strings of the AG? The legislature should reserve itself the right to cut budgets if expectations don't pan out. After all, they are the powers granted authority over disbursing funds. Let the governor handle his own business."
Both the governor's and AG's offices released statements just as the bill sits in a Senate committee.
"Just as we’re working to stabilize the state’s budget, this proposal throws another wrinkle into our plans and raises numerous legal issues,” Edwards said in his statement. “The Louisiana Constitution grants the governor the authority to submit a single budget for the executive branch of government, which includes the attorney general. There has been absolutely no evidence presented to justify this politically motivated move. The state’s budget crisis demands 100 percent of our attention, and a power grab, such as this, only serves as a distraction at a critical time.”
Meanwhile, Landry's office contends that the media and the governor, who has threatened to veto the bill should it reach his desk, are mischaracterizing the bill and that the governor is engaged in "Washington D.C.-style politics."
In his letter to the editor, Bagert said the governor's powers do little harm when applied to gubernatorial appointments, such as department heads for corrections, health, environment, etc., but can do harm when applied to elected officials.
"(The attorney general) should not have to deal with having his purse strings pulled by a puppeteer with entirely different responsibilities," Bagert wrote.