The White House's proposed budget takes the ax to a wide range of domestic programs, but unlike in past years, federal oil money that funds Louisiana's coastal restoration efforts isn't on the chopping block.
Both President Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, proposed tearing up an agreement that sends a share of federal royalties from offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico with the coastal states of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama.
Louisiana is slated to receive the largest cut of the royalties under the formula, which Congress set up under the 2006 Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act and is scheduled to deliver its first major payments to the states this year.
The White House budget proposal carries little weight in terms of actually setting policy. Members of Congress, who hold the federal government's purse-strings, usually ignore the president's budget in favor of their own priorities.
But the document is a comprehensive look at the White House's priorities, offering an outline of which government programs or initiatives the president considers important and which he'd gut.
Trump proposed axing GOMESA in his budget last year, as did Obama before him. Both suggested holding onto the revenue and using it to pay for other federal programs instead of shipping the cash to the states.
Nearly all of Louisiana's share is dedicated to coastal restoration efforts — and represents a major chunk of funding for projects outlined in the state's coastal master plan, which envisions 50 years of costly projects designed to stem the rate at which Louisiana's coast has been disappearing.
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, noted in a January letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney that the president's budget has attempted to kill the GOMESA program.
Graves, who ran the state's coastal restoration efforts under former Gov. Bobby Jindal before running for Congress, argued the program ultimately saves the federal government money by funding projects that reduce the state's vulnerability to hurricanes and other disasters along the coast.
"With hurricane intensity like we saw in 2017, we cannot afford to cut these funds," Graves wrote.
Graves said Louisiana's congressional delegation — along with members of Congress from the three other states receiving GOMESA funding — have met with Trump administration officials over the past year to highlight the program and the projects it funds.
Zinke toured south Louisiana with Graves and Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy in early December to see restoration efforts.
"We showed him on the ground where some of these dollars are being invested," Graves said Monday.
In a press call with reporters Monday, Zinke cited that visit and Louisiana’s disappearing coast in prompting the administration’s reversal on GOMESA, according to E&E News.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Jefferson Parish Republican, noted that Trump's latest budget is the first time since 2009 that the White House has endorsed keeping increases in the GOMESA program.
"I commend President Trump and (White House Budget Director Mick) Mulvaney for working with me to prioritize this provision that is a critical part of our energy dominance strategy and is crucial to Louisiana's coastal restoration efforts," Scalise said in a statement Monday.
Those budget proposals drew fire from Louisiana leaders — including both Republicans and Democrats — and environmental groups. The cuts never went anywhere, with Gulf Coast lawmakers on Capitol Hill convincing their colleagues to retain the GOMESA program.
In fact, Congress actually boosted the program last year by raising caps on the amount of federal oil and gas royalties the states can split. The change, included in the Republican tax-cut bill, could potentially send millions more to Louisiana over the coming years if offshore oil production picks up.
Low oil prices and a downturn in offshore drilling have led to lower-than-expected payouts from GOMESA thus far. Louisiana for years had projected $140 million in annual revenue from the program but is now expecting half that amount when the first major check arrives this spring.
“I’m glad the administration heard us loud and clear and decided to support offshore revenue sharing,” said Cassidy, who pressed for the GOMESA increases while serving on the Senate committee that wrote the tax bill. "After years of our concerns falling on deaf ears, it’s refreshing to have an administration that actually listens on GOMESA."
Kennedy praised the White House's stance on GOMESA, calling the program the "monetary linchpin of our coastal restoration efforts."
"It is critical that Louisiana and other states along the Gulf of Mexico continue to get a share of the federal revenue from offshore drilling," said Kennedy, who thanked Trump for "putting Louisiana first."
The Trump administration's about-face on GOMESA funding comes amid a push to open up new offshore areas to oil and gas exploration — despite resistance in some states to oil rigs off their coasts.
Graves said cutting the share of offshore oil revenue headed to the Gulf Coast states — as Trump proposed in his first budget — sent "entirely the wrong message" to other states where the administration wants to increase drilling.
Funding coastal restoration projects with a cut of offshore oil revenue also helps protect the Louisiana coast's large concentration of oil and gas infrastructure, Graves noted.
"You can't devote money from Gulf of Mexico energy production (to other federal programs) and not first step in and make sure these areas are sustainable," Graves said.
U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre, also supports the move to retain the GOMESA agreement, which he says is critical for coastal restoration projects.
But in a statement Higgins also says that while he supports many of Trump's proposed spending reductions, "I have concerns about the Administration’s proposed cuts to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Our ports and waterways — long neglected — are essential to Louisiana’s energy and agriculture economies as well international trade and fabrication."