By Cynthia Duet, Director of Governmental Relations, Audubon Louisiana
On May 24, 2013, a curious, if not uncomfortable, rhetorical question was posed in bold red lettering in an article from The Lens by Representative Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles. He asked, “Do you think when we created the Coastal Restoration Fund, it was meant to be used for money-laundering?”
Our groups believe the answer to be an unqualified “No” and therefore are supporting a bill this legislative session – HB 490, authored by Rep. Geymann – intended to close the loophole on further questionable manipulation of the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Fund (Coastal Fund).
At issue here is a financing tactic that has been implemented within the last several years as a creative solution to attempt to balance the state’s ailing budget. While the Louisiana Constitution prohibits using one-time money for recurring costs, such as health care and higher education, the administration and some lawmakers believe they can get around that rule by transferring money into, and then out of, the Coastal Fund, which can accept such one-time monies. State officials have repeatedly said that these transfers are allowable under state law.
The uses of the dollars in the Coastal Fund are defined specifically in the Louisiana Constitution, Article VII, Section 10.2(D), which states:
“The money in the fund may be appropriated for purposes consistent with the Coastal Protection Plan developed by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, or its successor.
No appropriation shall be made from the fund inconsistent with the purposes of the plan.”
We believe this language is abundantly clear and that the current machinations of the Coastal Fund erode its integrity and may threaten many millions of future dollars for coastal protection and restoration efforts essential to the state’s true coastal recovery.
Yet still in 2012, the so-called “fund sweep” bill (Act 597) provided for transfer of more than $21 million of non-recurring revenue from the state general fund to the Coastal Fund, and then the same value was transferred from the Coastal Fund into the state’s general fund and treated as recurring revenues. In 2013, an attempt was made to place more than $87 million of 2011-12 surplus dollars into the Coastal Fund, and then provided for that same value ($87.3 million) in “recurring” revenues to be placed into the state’s general fund (through an amendment to SB 226 that did not ultimately make its way into law). This session, nearly $51 million in non-recurring revenue are slated to be transferred from the Office of Debt Collection, initiatives from the Department of Revenue and other sources, into the Coastal Fund and then taken from that fund to pay for education, elderly affairs and libraries.
The perception of impropriety created by these budget tactics, particularly at this most critical time in the implementation phase of Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan, sends the wrong message to federal partners in charge of allocating and tracking dollars from Clean Water Act fines related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and related sources of funding.
Tomorrow, the Louisiana House Committee on Appropriations is scheduled to consider House Bill 490, which would put a stop to the current money manipulations. The bill adds succinct, qualifying language to the aforementioned section of the constitution that would prohibit not only appropriations from the Coastal Fund, but also pass-through transfers. Rep. Geymann’s bill would take effect by next year’s budget process, closing the loophole and disallowing the current finagling of the restoration account. We fully support the passage of this constitutional amendment so that the Coastal Fund can continue to enjoy the protections provided for it by the voters of this state in 2006 – through another constitutional amendment – which passed by an overwhelming majority.
Continued use of the Coastal Fund for accounting manipulation brings negative attention to an otherwise well-run coastal program and risks the state’s opportunity for BP oil spill recovery dollars. We must continue the fight to ensure the Coastal Fund is fully protected and used solely for coastal restoration and protection.
Take Action: Call your Louisiana state representative and tell them to close the loophole on transfers from the Coastal Fund other than those intended by law, by supporting HB 490.