Oct 18, 2013 3:33 PM by AP
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Finally a bit of good news for state lawmakers who have grappled with years of continuing budget cuts.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration said the state has nearly $163 million left over from the 2012-13 fiscal year that ended June 30, delivering the estimate Friday to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.
Auditors still have to review the state's books before the surplus amount is certified and the dollars are available for spending.
In addition, the state's constitution limits the way surplus money can be spent. It can be poured into the "rainy day" fund or used for other one-time items, such as bond payments, retirement debt, construction projects and coastal restoration work.
Jindal attributed the surplus to a growing economy and responsibility in state budgeting.
"In order to ensure that we weathered the recession better than other states, we reined in government spending and worked to improve Louisiana's business climate. We made difficult decisions that are paying off," the Republican governor said in a statement.
Lawmakers and the Jindal administration will decide how to use the dollars in the 2014 legislative session.
Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, the governor's top budget adviser, said no decisions have been made about how the Jindal administration will propose to spend the surplus.
"We're just happy to have the money," she said.
Lawmakers offered little reaction after Nichols announced the estimate Friday. Many had heard the general range of the excess money in conversations around the Louisiana Capitol.
Plus, they face new rounds of financial concerns in crafting the 2014-15 budget in the 2014 legislative session, with an estimated $547 million shortfall in the dollars they'd need to continue all current services and account for inflationary increases.
The surplus is the second in two years for the state. Lawmakers used the previous $113 million surplus to fill a gap in the state's Medicaid program that provides health care to the poor, elderly and developmentally disabled.
Sen. Jack Donahue, chairman of the joint budget committee, said he believes the state's economy is on an upturn, which is helping to improve - but not entirely fix - the budget picture.
"Things are getting better, but we still have more needs than we have money," Donahue, R-Mandeville, said.
Donahue said he'd like to see part of this latest surplus socked away in the rainy day fund, which is owed $330 million to help settle a 2010 lawsuit over the use of the fund in recent years to help close budget gaps.
The lawsuit settlement bill comes due in 2015, and Donahue would like to make some of the payment before that deadline.