This story has been updated with a statement from Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Since being unveiled nine years ago, Louisiana’s plan for coastal salvation, now pegged at $92 billion, has cleared a number of political obstacles, but it’s now trying to bridge an especially deep one: The $2 billion hole in the state’s budget.
Desperate to avoid repeating severe cuts to education, hospital and other vital services, lawmakers have filed more than a dozen bills many ending constitutional protections of some revenues sources for the Coastal Protection and Restoration Fund. Because the money is protected by dedications in the state constitution, these bills seek to put new amendments before voters, who would have the final say.
The governor cannot approve or veto the Legislature’s vote to put a constitutional amendment before the voters. But Gov. John Bel Edwards told The Lens he opposes any redirection of coastal funds.
“We were able to use non-coastal dollars awarded to the state from the BP Oil Spill to help with the FY 2016 budget, but I did not use nor do I have any intention of looking to use dollars designated for protecting and restoring the coast,” he said in a statement.
A review of the bills shows the coastal plan could lose $10 million to $20 million of the state’s $30 million annual contribution to the coastal fund, most of which comes from guaranteed shares of mineral royalties.
Some of the bills would continue limited protections for the money but give the Legislature discretion in how the money is allocated, or allow a portion of the funds to be used for any purpose during budget deficits. Others would repeal constitutional protections and direct all revenue to the state general fund. Passing a constitutional amendment requires approval by two-thirds of each house of the Legislature, then approval of a simple majority of statewide voters. It does not require signature of the governor.
While estimates of the funding that could be lost seem insignificant in a $92 billion project, supporters any cuts could be magnified by lost grants that depend on the state putting up matching money. And they worry they would send the wrong message to the nation as Louisiana seeks help for its expensive coastal projects, advocates said.
Steve Cochran, director of Restore the Mississippi Delta Coalition, a consortium of national and state environmental groups supporting the coastal effort, said via email the proposed cuts “would bring shortsightedness and foolishness to new levels” since the effort puts thousands to work and has led to development of technologies the state is now exporting.
“In other words, cutting coastal spending would directly undercut what is becoming our most important environmental and economic opportunity – the efforts to restore our coast,” he said.
“Despite our immediate budget crisis, as difficult as it is — Louisiana faces a much larger crisis in the disappearance of our coast, and now is not the time to be slowing or interrupting the critical work that is underway, nor jeopardizing federal funding for this work.”
America’s Wetland Foundation, an industry-supported group promoting the coastal effort nationally, said in a statement the bills would send “a signal to federal funders that coastal restoration assurances from the state will not be kept and that monies held in trust are not secure” and would thwart “ the will of the people, who when voting or polled, demonstrate that the issue of coastal restoration is most”
Val Marmilion, managing director of the Foundation, said it was possible the authors of some of the bills are unaware of the impact their actions could have on coastal funding.
His organization provided a synopsis of the bills that are of most concern:
Senate Bill 182, by Sen. Rick Ward (R-Port Allen) a constitutional amendment redirecting some mineral revenue to the Transportation Trust Fund in a way that could cost the coastal fund $10 million in direct funding and possible more.
SB 214, Sen. Mike Walsworth (R- West Monroe) a constitutional amendment that repeals protection for 18 funds and directs that revenue into the state general fund. Of specific concern to the coastal effort would be repeal of the Wildlife and Fisheries Conservation Fund and the Oilfield Site Restoration Fund, both of which pay for wetlands habitat restoration and improvement.
SB 346 – Sen. Troy Carter, (D-New Orleans), abolishes most dedicated funds not protected by the constitution and transfers revenue to the state general fund. Could jeopardize the coastal fund’s entire annual $30 million take from mineral royalties, according to America’s Wetland Foundation.
House Bills 508 and 716, (Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe), redirects mineral royalties in a way that could reduce annual contributions to the coastal effort from $30 million to $5 million.
HB 512, Rep. Robert Shadoin, (R-Ruston), a constitutional amendment to eliminate protections, leaving coastal fund open to other uses.
HB 584, Rep. John Schroder, Sr., (R-Covington), increases the amount lawmakers could take from protected funds during deficit years from 5 -percent to 10 -percent. Last year, that 5- percent take cost the coastal fund $6.5 million; $13 million would wipe out the fund balance.
HB 646, 829, Rep. Lance Harris, (R-Alexandria), redirects mineral revenue in ways that could cost the coastal fund 2 -percent of its annual income.