Pegitboard News

Louisiana district attorneys say state budget cut could slow down court cases

Louisiana district attorneys say state budget cut could slow down court cases

In the current state budget cycle, Louisiana gave local district attorneys' offices $31 million to help cover the salaries of assistant district attorneys and staff who coordinate victim services. In the next fiscal year though, the district attorneys are slated to receive just $5.4 million of that funding, an 83 percent reduction, according to House budget documents.

Lawmakers approved a budget Monday night (June 4) for the budget cycle that begins July 1, but not the additional taxes that would allow that spending plan to be implemented as it was designed. As a result, several government services are facing dramatic reductions that lawmakers hadn't necessarily intended.

Higher education, the TOPS college scholarship program, prisoner housing and the district attorneys' support are found in a portion of the spending plan for which there isn't enough revenue unless legislators approve more taxes in another special session later this month. 

If this cut to prosecutors stands, parish governments will be asked to make up the difference, said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, in an interview Thursday.

By law, parish governments have to provide adequate funding for prosecutors, though the state has consistently chipped in to help cover the costs of assistant district attorneys and victim coordinators' salaries, he said.

If implemented, the reduction will affect every district attorneys' office in the state, though some will be hurt more than others. It's likely many parish governments won't be able to cover for the shortfall left -- and litigation could be pursued to get adequate funding.

In the interim, Adams said "seasoned prosecutors" are likely to quit because their salaries will be substantially reduced, even if it is only on a temporary basis. He also thinks the budget reduction will tie up the courts because there won't be enough prosecutors available to move cases forward. 

Under the worst case scenario, Adams said people who have committed serious crimes could end up released because their cases don't get heard in a timely manner. 

When lawmakers return for a special session, lawmakers could choose to approve taxes and give more money to the district attorneys, but the prosecutors will be competing with several other state agencies for funding. The prison system, child welfare services, TOPS and higher education are also facing similar dramatic reductions. 

Somewhat oddly, the state budget calls for Louisiana's courts to receive full funding, even as other areas of the state government are looking at slashes to their support. The Legislature prioritized the judiciary over other branches of government in its spending plan. The state will actually spend $2 million more on the courts system in the next budget cycle than it did in the current one under the proposal. 

The state is facing a fiscal crisis because Louisiana's sales tax rate is dropping from 5 percent to 4 percent June 30 and lawmakers have not settled on a way to cut or replace the funding dropping off the books.

Conservative House Republicans are pushing for a 4.33 percent sales tax rate after June 30. Gov. John Bel Edwards, Democrats and some other Republicans want a 4.5 percent sales tax implemented next month so they can avoid most budget reductions. The difference between the two rates is just 17 cents on a $100 purchase.