Agency to sue state over funds grab

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Noticeably angered over the Legislature’s vote to take $26.4 million from the state’s Artificial Reef Development Fund Program, five members of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission voted unanimously Thursday to seek outside counsel to challenge the constitutionality of the Legislature’s move.

Acting on House Bill 477, which stripped more than $108.2 million from several state agencies’ funds, the Legislature moved the funds into the state’s General Fund. These funds were termed “over collection funds” by the state Division of Administration.

Acting Commission Chairman Patrick Morrow, a lawyer from Opelousas, asked for a resolution to establish a special three-man committee inside the commission to “… engage outside counsel to represent the commission at no charge.”

Morrow, with the support of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation and other sportsmen’s groups, said he knows of attorneys across the state who are ready to pursue the matter. He said his study of the bill made him believe the Artificial Reed Fund is afforded the same constitutional protection as the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Conservation Fund.

The ARDFP had as much as $50 million in donations from oil and gas companies since it was established in 1986.

Commission member Stephen Oats, a Lafayette lawyer, offered the motion to “… authorize the committee to pursue legal action to prevent taking these funds. We have to remember that the Legislature took $18 million from this fund last year. This is a necessary step. It’s clear that this is Conservation Fund money and this needs to be looked at through our legal process.”

Ruston commissioner Ronny Graham added, “We (commission members) have an obligation to protect the resources of this state. Every attorney I’ve talked to said it is in the Conservation Fund.”

Morrow, Graham and commission Chairman Stephen Sagrera from Abbeville were appointed to the special committee. Sagrera and commission member Billy Broussard were absent.

Federal law requires nonproducing oil and gas platforms to be removed from offshore waters. The ARDFP’s plan allows an oil company to donate the platform — mostly the decking and the supporting jacket structure — to the state for use as an artificial reef.

Before the plan was established, oil companies estimated removal costs at $1-$2 million. The plan demands companies donate one-half of removal-cost savings to the ARDFP. The LDWF picks up all liability for the oil platform artificial reef.

Latest LDWF’s figures indicate that since 1986, the program has established 65 offshore reef sites off the state’s coast and used 263 nonproducing platforms to create those reefs.

Rep. James “Jim” Fannin, D-Jonesboro, authored the bill, and Gov. Bobby Jindal signed it into law June 30 as Act 378.