House restores money to Artificial Reef Fund, shuns LDWF land purchase

Senate debates bill next, could restore Jindal-backed moves to plug state budget shortfall.

The House of Representatives voted late this afternoon to advance the state’s $24.7 billion budget plan for the next fiscal year, and in the process took firm stances on line items related to sportsmen. Without objection, lawmakers reversed the proposed transfer of $20.6 million from the Artificial Reef Development Fund. As detailed in House Bill 452 by Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin (D-Jonesboro), the money would have been used to help fill holes in the budget, primarily higher education.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration wanted to use the transfer to partly plug an anticipated $1.3 billion revenue shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Since 2009, it taken $45 million from the fund, which bankrolls the rigs-to-reefs program.

While it temporarily addresses the concerns of the oil and gas industry, which pays into the fund a portion of the money it saves on having to scrap rigs, two unknowns remain, beginning with the Senate that debates the budget next. What route the upper chamber takes will play out in the coming weeks — the legislative session ends June 6 — but it has already showed support by passing a constitutional amendment to the House that would give the reef fund added protections from future raids.

Secondly, a lawsuit by the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission is still possible. Commissioners, upset about past transfers, as well as the one proposed by the administration this year being used for needs other than habitat creation, have threatened to move forward if the fund sweep is reinserted in House Bill 452.

As for the past transfers, which commissioners contend should be repaid, the administration is said to be working on few alternatives. That, too, could trigger the lawsuit if commissioners aren’t satisfied.

The so-called funds bill, which feeds money into the state budget, also advanced without authorization for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to pay $2 million to the Office of State Lands for 29 pieces of property, as lawmakers stuck to an earlier commitment to keep it out.

Roughly 3,000 acres spanning several parishes, the land would be used by the department in conjunction with wildlife management areas, refuges and black bear recovery areas. But, according to counsel for the department, it would be an unprecedented sale, at least in recent memory, since such lands are routinely donated — the line item essentially has the state selling land to itself during dire budget times.

In an earlier interview, a spokesperson for the Jindal administration said it was hoped the Senate, which will officially receive the budget next week, restores the authorization.

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