WL&F Commission trying to sue its boss - the state

by Heather Miller

The WL&F Commission believes the Jindal administration may have violated the state's Constitution when it stripped $26.4 million from an artificial reef program.

Two state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries commissioners - who also happen to be Acadiana lawyers - are using their statewide legal contacts to find someone willing to sue the state.

The Advocate's outdoor writer Joe Macaluso writes that the WL&F Commission is livid over the Jindal administration's move to strip $26.4 million from the state's Artificial Reef Development Fund Program. According to the LW&F website, the program, which transforms obsolete, abandoned oil platforms into artificial reefs that support marine habitat, is a win-win for oil and gas companies and the Gulf's marine life. For oil companies, funding artificial reefs on now defunct platforms is a cheaper alternative to removing the platforms from the Gulf within a year of their closure, as federal law mandates:

Since the program's inception, 65 offshore reef sites utilizing the jackets of 263 obsolete platforms have been created off Louisiana's coast. The use of obsolete oil and gas platforms in Louisiana has proved to be highly successful. Their large numbers, design, longevity and stability have provided a number of advantages over the use of traditional artificial reef materials. The participating companies also save money by converting the structure into a reef rather than abandoning it onshore and are required to donate a portion of the savings to operate the state program.

The major funding loss was part of a House bill that diverted $108.2 million from several state agencies to cover shortfalls in the state's general fund. But commissioners argue that the program has received roughly $50 million in private donations from oil and gas companies since the program began in 1986:

Acting Commission Chairman Patrick Morrow, a lawyer from Opelousas, asked for a resolution to establish a special three-man committee inside the commission to " engage outside counsel to represent the commission at no charge."

Morrow, with the support of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation and other sportsmen's groups, said he knows of attorneys across the state who are ready to pursue the matter. He said his study of the bill made him believe the Artificial Reed Fund is afforded the same constitutional protection as the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries' Conservation Fund.

Commission member Stephen Oats, a Lafayette lawyer, offered the motion to " authorize the committee to pursue legal action to prevent taking these funds. We have to remember that the Legislature took $18 million from this fund last year. This is a necessary step. It's clear that this is Conservation Fund money and this needs to be looked at through our legal process."

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