BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. Bobby Jindal is at odds with his own appointees on Louisiana's fisheries regulatory panel, who are threatening to sue the governor for stripping dollars from an artificial reef fund and using the money to plug budget holes.
Oil and gas companies have donated millions of dollars into the Artificial Reef Development Fund since 1986 to turn old drilling rigs into reefs that help attract marine life, create fishing spots and aid in coastal restoration efforts.
Jindal and lawmakers have diverted $45 million from the reef fund since 2010 to pay for other items, including legislative pet projects, health care and items across state government. In his $24.8 billion budget proposal for the 2013-14 year, the governor moves $20.6 million from the reef fund to public college programs.
Billy Broussard, vice chairman of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, said Wednesday if the fund gets raided again without plans for repayment, the commission intends to file a lawsuit.
"We're being dishonest to the oil companies. It's 'rigs to reefs.' It's not 'rigs to higher education,' not 'rigs to preschool,' not 'rigs to hospitals,'" said Broussard, a commercial fisherman in Vermilion Parish.
Critics of the fund diversions say the moves breach legal contracts between the state and the oil companies and endanger programs designed to protect Louisiana's eroding coastline.
"Protecting our fragile coast is one of our top policy priorities, and it requires a significant amount of money. For the administration to repeatedly take legally dedicated funds intended for the coast is way over the line," Rep. Jerome "Dee" Richard, I-Thibodaux, said in a statement opposing the raid on the reef fund.
Oil companies donate obsolete drilling platforms to the state rather than pay for costly teardowns that would otherwise be required under federal law. In exchange, the companies must donate half their savings from avoiding the rig removal to the state's reef fund.
Ronny Graham, chairman of the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, said the panel continues discussions with the governor's office about getting the artificial reef money returned. Jindal spokesman Sean Lansing said the administration is in talks with commission members, but he didn't offer further details.
Jindal proposes to shift the reef money into an "Overcollections Fund" and then pour it into Louisiana's higher education budget to help patch holes and offset a more than $1 billion shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The governor's top budget architect, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, told lawmakers that without shifting hundreds of millions from dedicated funds across state government, colleges and health care services would face steep cuts.
She said she is confident the law allows for the reef fund money to be used elsewhere.
"We will continue to provide sufficient funding to meet the needs of ongoing projects, and we are working with the commission to ensure that," Nichols said in a statement.
If lawmakers agree to use the money, that would nearly drain the Artificial Reef Development Fund, leaving about $2 million for conservation programs.
The Wildlife and Fisheries Commission considered a legal challenge two years ago after the second sweep of dollars from the fund, but Broussard said the panel reached an agreement with the governor's office not to file a lawsuit if the fund was left alone in future budget negotiations.
"It's obvious to me where we need to go from here," Broussard said. "We've gone through this on a handshake and a smile when we decided not to go with the lawsuit. We need something a little better than that this time."
Two Republican lawmakers have a pending lawsuit against the Jindal administration, claiming the fund sweeps and other financing maneuvers used by the governor — and approved by the Legislature — violate constitutional limits on how the budget can be crafted.
The Louisiana Public Service Commission lost a previous lawsuit over the removal of money from its funds to shift to other state programs and services. That decision is being appealed.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.
Posted on Sun, March 17, 2013