By Kevin Thibodeaux | LSU Student
The Jindal Administration temporarily has avoided litigation from commissioners of one of its agencies over the diversion of Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (DWF) funds to meet budget shortfalls. How long will it be able to stave off legal action from commissioners of his choosing is unclear.
For the past two years, the DWF Commission has had a lawsuit set to file in an attempt to halt the Governor's Office from sweeping of dedicated funds out of DWF's Artificial Reef Program to the general fund. Some $46 million has been taken so far.
In 2010, the administration stripped the fund of $18 million and in 2011 another $26 million was transferred to the general fund. The governor's office isn't saying whether the sweep will be repeated this year.
Stephen Sagrera, commercial fishing and fur representative on the DWF's commission and a member of a subcommittee meeting directly with the Governor's Office about possible litigation, said the threatened suit will be used by the board it to "hold the fire to [Jindal's] feet."
When the lawsuit originally was drawn up, said Sagrera, the commission consisted of holdover appointees of former Gov. Kalthleen Blanco. The action had the appearance of politics, he said, adding that now the committee can be taken seriously because it is comprised of Jindal appointees.
That $46 million diverted from the DWF's Artificial Reef Fund was used to alleviate overall revenue shortfalls and committee members fear this money will again be transferred into the general fund because of predicted deficits in the current budget, although the legislation that deals with the sweeping of funds, House Bill 2, has yet to be made public.
"We think what they're doing is potentially against the law," Sagrera said, noting that the money was donated to the Artificial Reef fund by oil companies specifically to convert their old platforms to artificial reefs that serve as natural habitats for the Gulf Coast's fish species.
The DWF commission met in executive session in mid-February to discuss possible litigation against Jindal. Billy Broussard, vice chairman of the committee, said the February meeting didn't close the door on litigation but the commission chose to refrain from taking action until the state budget was released.
Sagrera said the Governor's Office reached out to the committee in February and requested a meeting. At this meeting, the Jindal administration agreed to begin talks to replenish the funds that already had been taken from the Artificial Reef fund.
The Governor's Office did not respond to repeated requests on the possible litigation or on its discussions with the DWF Commission.
"The governor seems eager to make the fund whole again by the end of his term," Sagrera said.
He said the commission not only hopes to have the money returned to the Artificial Reef Fund but also to protect the fund from future administrations.
Sagrera said the agreement was only verbal and the committee is waiting on a formal proposal. No deadline was set, he said, but the Jindal administration said it would have a proposal by the DWF's regularly monthly meeting last week. That did not happen.
The DWF commission held an executive session last Thursday's meeting to further discuss possible litigation. Ronny Graham, chairman of the DWF Commission, said the Jindal administration still hadn't given the commission a formal plan, but he expects one by the summer.
As for now, both Graham and Sagrera say that litigation is a likely possibility. While neither says he wants to use legal action, they both agree the DWF Commission is willing to do what is necessary to safeguard the reef fund.