NO.cgrivercommerce.ADV.100.JPG

A refinery is seen during a tour with U.S. Coast Guard along the Mississippi River in New Orleans, La. Wednesday, June 19, 2019.

Over the last dozen years, a story of damaging budget cuts is not hard to find in Louisiana, whether in agencies dealing with battered kids or paroled convicts, consumer protection or environmental enforcement.

That’s because of a national recession in 2008 and self-inflicted budgetary wounds created by bad decisions in the State Capitol over more than a decade.

But the last example is a striking case that public health and safety are being protected by far fewer folks and with far less money, even as the state Department of Environmental Quality must oversee a dramatic expansion of industrial facilities in Louisiana since 2008.

The governor and legislators ought to be willing to take a harder look at DEQ’s budget and staffing in the coming year.

The Environmental Integrity Project in Washington chastised many states for cutting enforcement of clean air and water laws over the 10 years since 2008. But DEQ was among the worst cut, with its budget slashed by nearly 35 percent and its staff cut by almost 30 percent, the group’s report said.

The report pointed out that since 2012, Louisiana has approved 42 new major petrochemical manufacturing or natural gas exporting projects and has 11 more new projects awaiting permit approvals.

The national report is part of a policy debate in the nation’s capital, as the Trump administration seeks to devolve more enforcement activities to the states. And the report argues that many states have cut their environmental enforcement budgets, calling into question the federal initiative.

Whatever the outcome of that discussion, we would like to see a real focus on DEQ’s budget here. For all that we favor expansion of oil and gas facilities in the Bayou State, the reality is that effective science-based environmental enforcement must go hand-in-hand with new plants.

Technology can allow many government functions to be performed with fewer people. But constructive reform is based on getting at least the same, if not more, output from an agency.

DEQ has some wins to its credit, including attainment status for air pollution standards in 63 of 64 parishes, St. Bernard being the only exception.

Its budget was also somewhat protected during the harsh reductions of the Jindal administration until 2015 because money comes from fees or fines levied on the industries, or because its functions are tied to federal funding sources like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The state budget has been more stable since 2015, but environmental enforcement is not a politically popular priority.

It defies common sense to have DEQ stretched thinner at a time when the state’s leadership is avidly seeking to expand petrochemical manufacturing. If we want the jobs and payrolls of the plants, we must ensure that clean air and water are protected.