Jeremy Alford

Proposals would broaden scope of natural resources money

by Jeremy Alford

Two state senators from south Louisiana want to give the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources more control over two sizable pools of money that are chiefly derived from oil-and-gas and other minerals-related activities. The upcoming regular session, which convenes on April 27, will be host to their arguments.

A proposed constitutional amendment authored by Sen. Rob Marionneaux, a Maringouin Democrat, would nearly double the amount of money parishes receive in severance taxes from local natural resources, except for sulfur, lignite and timber. His Senate Bill 21 would also direct additional severance taxes to support initiatives for the Atchafalaya Basin, as determined by the secretary of DNR. Presently, that’s Scott Angelle, who likewise serves as the legislative liaison for Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican.

Another bill boosting the fiscal discretion of the secretary has been filed by Sen. Reggie Dupre, a Bourg Democrat, and it transfers oversight of a fund that provided $11 million last year to support the operation and administration of the Office of Mineral Resources. The legislation would change the name of the “Mineral Resources Operation Fund” to the “Mineral and Energy Operation Fund,” but Dupre’s Senate Bill 41 does much more than that.

It also stipulates that money from the fund no longer be appropriated to the Office of Mineral Resources and instead be directed to DNR for the “regulation of minerals, ground water and related energy activities.” Angelle was unable to provide an interview, but his press secretary Patrick Courreges says that interagency transfers are already common when another part of the department overlaps into an area normally overseen by the Office of Mineral Resources. “It’s just a bit of housekeeping,” Courreges says. If lawmakers adopt Dupre’s bill, it would take effective on July 1.

Marionneaux’s proposed constitutional amendment would have more of a local impact and the coffers of most Acadiana parishes could stand to benefit. SB 21 would increase the maximum amount of mineral-derived severance taxes allocated to parishes from $850,000 to $1.85 million next year and from $1.85 million to $2.85 million in 2011. Beginning in 2012, any amount up to $10 million in such severance taxes collected from state lands in the Atchafalaya Basin would also be deposited into the Atchafalaya Basin Conservation Fund.

However, these monies would only be directed to the Basin after previous commitments to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Fund, which likewise feeds off of severance taxes, are met. Furthermore, the money in the Basin fund could only be used for projects in the state or federal master plan — developed by the Atchafalaya Basin Research and Promotion Board or other advisory or approval boards within the Atchafalaya Basin Program — or those needing a financial match for the Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System, according to the legislation, “all as the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources shall direct.”

Marionneaux’s bill also states that only 85 percent of the fund may be used for water management, water quality or access projects. The remaining 15 percent may be used to complete ongoing projects and for projects that are in accordance with the state master plan. A maximum of 5 percent of the money, though, can also be used for operational costs of the program or the department, under the bill. If approved by the Legislature, the proposed constitutional amendment would face voters during the next statewide election on Nov. 2, 2010.