Louisiana lawmakers need to ensure transparency in coastal fund spending, PAR says
Transparency in decision-making, procurement and expenditures will play a key role in ensuring that billions of dollars in coastal restoration and protection funds coming Louisiana’s way are not misspent, the Public Affairs Research Council says in a commentary released today.
The money is expected to come to the state over the next decade. PAR acknowledges that the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has a well-established process for transparency and decision-making, but the council says more should be done to prevent state lawmakers from raiding the funds.
“As the dollars flow into Louisiana from the federal RESTORE Act, offshore oil revenue sharing and other sources, how will we ensure those funds will be put to good use?” the council asks. “As lawmakers face tight budget times, will existing state dollars dedicated to coastal restoration be siphoned off?”
To that end, PAR has outlined a list of issues and recommendations for ensuring transparency in terms of how the funds are used.
PAR points to former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration which attempted to use a funds transfer bill to remove money from the Coastal Fund and place it in the state’s Overcollections Fund so it could be spent on the state’s operating costs. The plan was ultimately derailed in the House of Representatives, PAR writes. To prevent such a maneuver in the future, PAR suggests current Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state Legislature should avoid using “budget gimmicks” to redirect, supplant and raid the Coastal fund.
“With the RESTORE Act and other non-state funding programs comes a higher level of scrutiny as to how the funds are expended, as well as more stringent and frequent audits. If the state misuses these, any misspent dollars will have to be repaid,” PAR writes. It also suggests that CPRA goes beyond the minimum requirements of public meeting laws and that information should be available electronically to the public.
“The Coastal Fund has been raided multiple times in the past few years to help meet mid-year operating budget shortfalls,” PAR says. “While these raids are problems, they are compounded by the fact that they are usually hidden in broader budget language. Only close analysis of secondary documents or further scrutiny revealed that the raids were even happening. This compounds the problem of the raid by seeking to cover it up.”
This budget practice is the antithesis of transparency, PAR says.
“This disclosure should be made well in advance of any decision point, such as to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, so that policy makers have time to digest the information and look for alternatives. Citizens and stakeholder groups should be able to weigh in on the issue,” the council says.