Dardenne sounds alarm on cuts

March 24 2011 | Latest News
Budget hurts parks, tourism, he says

Thursday, March 24, 2011
By Jan Moller

Capital bureau

BATON ROUGE -- State parks, libraries, arts and tourism promotion programs would be shortchanged under Gov. Bobby Jindal's budget proposal, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said Wednesday as lawmakers continued poring over the governor's spending recommendations.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell asked the Legislature for more money for the state's legal fight to recover damages from BP and Transocean in connection with last year's oil spill.

Dardenne told the House Appropriations Committee that Jindal's budget takes $7.6 million from a fund dedicated to state parks maintenance to pay for operating expenses. Other cuts are imperiling arts programs, and threatening the ability of the state library to provide books and Internet access at community libraries across the state, said Dardenne, whose office oversees those areas.

"If ever there is a state that ought to be funding the arts with relish, it's Louisiana," Dardenne said.

Some of the biggest changes would affect the state tourism budget, where $5.8 million that the state receives from a dedicated tax would be used for "pass-through" projects such as the 2012 NCAA Final Four, the Essence Festival and other events that Dardenne says should be paid for with other dollars.

Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater, Jindal's chief budget architect, said the state's financial woes left him little choice but to make cuts and raid the maintenance fund. The alternative would be to cut money for health care, education and public safety, he said.

"We'll stop intruding on the (maintenance) fund when things improve," Rainwater said.

Jindal has laid out a $24.9 billion budget plan that proposes to patch a $1.6 billion shortfall through a mixture of spending cuts, tuition increases and one-time revenue generators. The House Appropriations Committee is reviewing the bill before making changes later this spring.

Wednesday featured testimony from statewide elected officials, who traditionally are more likely to complain about their budgets than the agency heads who report to the governor.

Caldwell said the budget includes no new money for his agency's legal battle to determine fault and recover damages from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The current-year budget provides $10 million for the suit, which is being waged with a combination of agency lawyers and outside counsel. So far $6 million of that has been spent, and Assistant Attorney General Renee Free said she expects the rest to be spent by the June 30 end of the fiscal year.

Agency officials said they need at least $15 million next year to compete with the deep-pocket legal resources being deployed by the oil companies.

"This is a crucial year for us," Caldwell said.

Caldwell also complained that rent payments for office space in New Orleans are increasing as the state forces his agency's litigation and investigations sections to move into the Benson Tower office building.

The investigations section is currently based in Kenner, while the litigation section operates from an office on Poydras Street. The combined rent for the two offices is $266,000 a year, but state officials want them both to move into the Benson Tower at an annual cost of $600,000 as part of the inducement package with New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson.

Besides doubling his rent, Caldwell said the new offices are inconvenient because it would not be open around the clock and would therefore make it hard to bring in witnesses for depositions and interviews.