While the Legislature grapples with the giant holes in state government’s operating budget, one of Louisiana’s larger priorities appears to be on fiscal auto pilot. Louisiana is due to get billions from federal funds and the BP settlement of claims arising from the 2010 oil spill that devastated the Gulf Coast.
But there are problems ahead, requiring vigilance to ensure the money goes where it ought to go and that it’s not siphoned off for other purposes — either at the state level or by ill-advised budget maneuvers like those recommended lately by President Barack Obama.
At the state level, the Public Affairs Research Council called out former Gov. Bobby Jindal for using some dedicated coastal money in his last efforts to patch together the current-year state budget. That patch turned out to be a Band-Aid way too small for the budget wound, leading to the contentious special session of the Legislature.
Notably, though, both candidates for governor — the Jindal move coming before the runoff election — opposed any use of coastal funds for operating expenses. Gov. John Bel Edwards and the new administration are, we hope, going to be consistently strong on this issue.
Edwards and lawmakers, though, did tap part of the BP settlement for the budget, right? Yes, but that was $200 million from the settlement to be awarded to the state for economic damages. The far-larger settlement will be dedicated to coastal work.
At the same time, if the president and national politics does not get in the way, the Gulf of Mexico Energy and Security Act of the past decade finally kicks in with serious revenue-sharing for Louisiana and other Gulf states.
“With the BP oil spill settlements and GOMESA funding, Louisiana has an opportunity to execute some critical coastal protection and restoration projects,” PAR noted. But the watchdog group added that the money can’t become a piggy bank at the state level: “With critical state revenues declining and the funding gap widening for coastal restoration and protection, Louisiana must not continue to make mistakes like siphoning designated money away from coastal protection and restoration.”
That’s true, but the risks of losing GOMESA money at the federal level cannot be ignored.
That has prompted a stern letter to the president from several Louisiana coastal groups, including national environmental organizations, and the governor and other elected officials. The letter backs the efforts of the Louisiana delegation in Congress to keep GOMESA for the states, instead of redistributing the money for use around the country, as recommended by Obama’s proposed 2017 budget.
“Unfortunately, despite the progress we have made since the 2005 hurricanes and the 2010 oil spill, Louisiana is still facing the largest land loss crisis in north America,” the letter from the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition says.
The erosion of Louisiana’s coastline is a truly national problem, given the vast interest of the larger economy in energy production as well as fisheries and wetlands. It seems particularly small-minded of Obama to scatter around the country money coming from the Gulf Coast that will protect the source of those revenues.
Part of the argument at the federal level is that the state already has made commitments to spend the coastal revenues on protection and restoration projects. We need to follow through on that commitment in the State Capitol.