As Louisiana's Supreme Court justices made their pitch to lawmakers for a state judicial budget not only free of cuts, but boosted higher, they didn't mention they were sitting on a multimillion-dollar surplus.

The justices described damaging implications if they faced reductions in this year's budget. Once lawmakers worked out a tax deal to stave off deep cuts across state government, the state's judicial budget also escaped cuts — and the justices actually got a slight, $2 million increase in state financing to bring their budget up to $173 million.

What about an unspent fund balance pegged at nearly $58 million in the last audit of the state Supreme Court's finances? That didn't come up during the budget hearings, and the justices haven't described how they intend to spend it.

Asked about the money, high court spokesman Robert Gunn suggested the surplus was a sign of the justices' fiscal responsibility. He said in an email that the money "reflects the hard work of the court to reduce spending in anticipation of tough economic conditions in the state."

Lawmakers could indeed find out about the money, but they'd have to know where to look. The Supreme Court reports the money annually to the legislative auditor's office and another budget office. The justices just don't volunteer the information as they're negotiating how much state financing they'll receive annually.

Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, the Democrat who handles the judicial budget in the Senate, said he was aware of the surplus. But he acknowledged that many other lawmakers "probably don't know how much money they have, quite frankly."

The judicial budget crafted by lawmakers pays for the operations of the Louisiana Supreme Court, the state's five courts of appeal, the salaries and retirement benefits for all state court judges, part of the salaries for parish and city court judges and judicial programs managed by the high court. Those salaries have gone up recently, with five years of pay hikes for Louisiana's judges approved by lawmakers in 2013.

In budget hearings earlier this year, as they faced the threat of deep cuts along with other agencies, Supreme Court justices described grim scenarios of shuttered drug courts and scaled-back services. In her annual state of the judiciary address, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson asked lawmakers for $7 million more than the Supreme Court received, saying a $180 million budget is necessary to fund "not only an independent judiciary, but also an effective one."

She said the judicial budget "reflects years of belt-tightening." She said the court has delayed filling open jobs, sought to renegotiate contracts with vendors and restricted consulting contracts to cut costs in recent years. She reminded lawmakers, as the justices often do, that state spending on the judicial system is less than 1 percent of the state's total budget.

Johnson didn't talk about the surplus.

The Supreme Court, Gunn said, has worked to build up the equivalent of a 90-day reserve in case of state budget problems or emergencies. He said the surplus ensures the justices have money to pay for drug courts, court-appointed advocates for abused and neglected children and other services "should legislative appropriations cease."

The fund balance, Gunn said, also can be used to pay for items such as health and retirement increases, repairs to the Supreme Court building in New Orleans, expansion of court programs and upgrades to computer and security systems. However, justices have cited the increased costs of health insurance and retirement obligations and expansion of court programs when they ask lawmakers to bump up their budget, rather than publicly suggesting they'd use money they already have on hand.

LaFleur, a lawyer, said he understands why the justices are allowed to build up reserves, citing the constitutional separation of powers.

"The judiciary's a little bit different," he said. "To the extent we would underfund them, that would put their operations in jeopardy and would be undermining another branch of government."

The Supreme Court isn't alone in sitting on tens of millions in unspent funds. Legislative agencies have similar balances, with a recent financial report showing a $40 million "unassigned fund balance" for one legislative agency.

 

Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at twitter.com/melindadeslatte