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GANNETT NEWS SERVICE SPECIAL REPORT

Losing Ground

Wetland’s demise ripples across nation

Governor will raise money for coastal amendments campaign

By JOHN HILL
Gannett News Service

BATON ROUGE, La. — Three constitutional amendments on Louisiana's Oct. 4 ballot are so critical to the state's efforts to win federal financial support for restoring Louisiana's coastline that Gov. Mike Foster is raising money for a television ad campaign.

The propositions raise money, without raising taxes, for the state's share of the estimated $14 billion cost of restoring a "reasonable" coastline by 2050 through projects under development by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The money would come from a portion of payments that oil and gas companies make to settle mineral tax disputes with the state. It also would come from a portion of tobacco settlement funds if the state decides to sell its remaining annual payments for cash up front.

Another proposition would ensure that the money would go to those coastal restoration projects and not to compensating oyster leaseholders who are filing a lawsuit claiming the restoration projects have cost them their livelihood.

Foster believes Congress will approve paying for most of the restoration projects. And state officials hope the required state match is no more than 10 percent.

"Everything I heard out of Washington is positive," Foster said. "We certainly have people up there who understand the issue."

Val Marmillion, a Louisiana native who has a public relations firm with offices in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, is talking with state officials about developing the message for the state campaign.

"The sell is the state has done its part. It's time to send a message to Washington that it's time for the federal government to do its part in saving this national resource," he said.

Louisiana also hopes to get some money out of the federal energy bill this year by asking for a tiny fraction of the $5 billion to $7 billion a year the U.S. government gets in royalties from oil produced in the Gulf of Mexico outside the state's three-mile jurisdiction, said Andy Kopplin, the governor's chief of staff.

But the key battle will be to get restoration of Louisiana's wetlands, now slipping into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of about a football field every 15 minutes, into the 2004 water bill.

"There is increasing recognition both in Washington and nationally of the significant threat to Louisiana's coast and the importance of it from an environmental perspective," Kopplin said. An indicator of that is a front-page Washington Post article July 13 that describes the threat to the nation's oil and gas supply and the seafood industry.

"Any kind of coastal restoration projects that we would anticipate would require a state match," Kopplin said. "Even if it is a small percentage, it would be a significant amount of money."

The two financing amendments, which the governor has requested be Nos. 1 and 2 on the ballot, do not involve any new taxes, Kopplin said.

The third restricts oyster bed leaseholders to "fair compensation only" by changing the legal formula on how damages are assessed by courts when the state takes back the leases for coastal restoration.

"Our big interest is in educating voters," Kopplin said. "We want to educate them to know if they want to make a serious step that will help the state without any new taxes, they should vote for these amendments."

Proposed constitutional amendments

Three constitutional amendments will be on Louisiana's primary election ballot Oct. 4. State officials see them as critical to restoring Louisiana's coastline.

1) Set aside part of payments from oil and gas companies to settle mineral tax disputes with the state.

Provisions:

— After the first $5 million in aggregate settlements of mineral disputes between the state and oil companies, the next $35 million would go into the Coastal Restoration Fund, from which earnings could be spent to match federal grants.

— The $40 million cap on the fund would be increased to $500 million.

— Coastal restoration would be added to debt service, retirement trust funds and capital outlay as a possible use of for any one-time income the state gets. One-time money would include mineral dispute aggregates in excess of $40 million.

2) Set aside a portion of sales of tobacco settlement funds.

Provisions:

— If the state sells the remaining 40 percent of its annual payments from tobacco companies in settlement of the lawsuit charging them with causing health problems, 20 percent would go into the Wetlands Preservation Fund.

3) Limit oyster lease liability.

Provisions:

— Retroactively invalidate $2 billion judgment against state for damaging oyster beds leased to private companies due to a coastal protection project. Court cases would be limited to the actual value of the leases.