Among the contingencies propping up Gov. Bobby Jindal's budget proposal is a unique and possibly unprecedented land deal involving the state selling properties at a significant markup to ... itself. That's the latest twist in the winding debate over Jindal's proposed $24.7 billion budget, which is short on revenues by about $1.3 billion.
To fill that revenue hole, the administration is grabbing money from various dedicated funds and betting on contingencies that include privatization contracts, 11 land deals and other mechanisms that conservative lawmakers say are fiscally uncertain — despite recent assurances from Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols that they're safe bets.
One of the proposals would transfer 29 lots totaling slightly more than 3,080 acres from the Office of State Lands to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (WLF), which would pay $2 million in return — from the Conservation Fund. Intended to be used with wildlife refuges and management areas, the lands are located in Ascension, Bienville, Bossier, Franklin, Grant, Pointe Coupee, Rapides, St. Charles, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and West Feliciana parishes.
The state acquired the parcels at little or no cost. "But they still have a cumulative value of $2 million," says Michael DiResto, the division's assistant commissioner of policy and communications.
That the state is selling land to itself for use as wildlife management areas and refuges is unprecedented in recent memory, says Cole Garrett, a WLF attorney. "It hasn't happened in the three years I've been here," he says, adding, "no one else I've spoken with can recall it happening before."
When asked to identify similar land deals dating back farther, the Division of Administration was unable to provide
The state routinely transfers property to governmental entities at no cost. In the current legislative session, four bills would transfer land from the state to the cities of Pineville and Ruston as well as Lafourche, Orleans and St. Martin parishes. In Lafourche, the land would be used for a public boat launch.
DiResto says the administration is "simply using diligence in managing state resources, using vacant land parcels owned by the Office of State Lands that are adjacent to wildlife management areas or refuges and incorporating them into Wildlife and Fisheries' management areas to provide recreational opportunities."
How much anglers and others would actually use those lands is another matter. According to information and documents released to Gambit by the Division of Administration, the properties include former lakes that are now dry beds, lands that reverted from federal to state ownership, and one lot that is a batture, or elevated riverbed.
Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham says his team is always looking for add-ons and that various terrains are needed to accommodate everyone from campers and hikers to bird watchers and nature photographers. "To that end, we have been working with State Lands to identify properties that could be incorporated as WMA properties, and will continue to do so," he says.
Taking $2 million from the Conservation Fund to help Jindal balance his proposed budget is also problematic. The fund is already under attack on another front. The administration wants to pull $20.6 million out of the Artificial Reef Development Fund — to which the oil and gas industry contributes — to help create underwater habitats using decommissioned drilling rigs. Jindal already has taken $45 million from the reef fund since the 2009-2010 fiscal year.
Members of the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, all appointed by the governor, are close to filing a lawsuit over the matter. They argue the money should be used as intended, not how the governor sees fit. "The [rigs-to-reefs] donations are made to the Conservation Fund, which is constitutionally protected," says Rebecca Triche, executive director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation.
It's a troubling trend for conservationists, who want to see money intended for the outdoors to stay outdoors. It also makes conservatives nervous, because the same amount of cash will be needed in next year's budget for the same recurring expenses. Meanwhile, both groups are making their cases to Jindal, who may need a refuge of his own before the current legislative session adjourns on June 6 — which, coincidentally, is also the anniversary of D-Day.