Jeremy Alford

Boost for coastal money fails

by Jeremy Alford

Citing the dwindling hours of the recent session and an unsteady economy, members of the budget-drafting House Appropriations Committee deferred two votes recently on attempts to steer more oil and gas money toward coastal restoration and protection efforts. The constitutional amendments by Rep. Damon Baldone, a Houma Democrat, were proposed as a means to help Louisiana raise enough money to match the investment the federal government will soon be putting into the ever-increasing problem. If they had been passed, the constitutional amendments would have appeared on the Nov. 4 ballot.

State engineers and geologists contend more than 14 million square yards of shoreline have been eroded since the year’s beginning. In response, the federal government is expected to pump as much as $15 billion into the dilemma by 2012 – and that’s just the first wave of money. As part of the bargain, the state is expected to put up $1.8 billion of its own money to match the federal expenditures during this timeframe.

House Bill 703 sought to give Louisiana voters the choice of dedicating 25 percent of all new mineral revenues to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Fund. That’s money that is usually channeled into the state Budget Stabilization Fund, commonly referred to as the Rainy Day Fund, which in theory is used for emergencies.

According to analysis conducted on the bill by the Legislative Fiscal Office, the CPRF is scheduled to receive $37.4 million in 2009 and $34.4 million in 2010. If the constitutional amendment were in place, those transfers would increase to $406.3 million in 2009 and $368.8 million in 2010. Technically, however, the Budget Stabilization Fund wouldn’t be losing out on dollars, under the proposal. That’s because the fund is already “at its maximum (constitutional) balance, and is likely to stay at its maximum each year under the current revenue outlook,” and the additional mineral revenue that is targeted in the bill is “currently flowing to the state general fund.

Rep. Jim Fannin, a Jonesboro Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, argued that the money is already tied up by ongoing expenses and cannot be moved. But he did promise to look at the issue again next year. “We know there’s never going to be enough, but it serves this state well to know that we are trying to make such an effort,” he says. “And if there are dollars we can move to this area, it’s a good idea that we try to do it.”