Legislation that would splinter the funding of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board and transfer its oversight to the lieutenant governor was forwarded Wednesday by the House and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Testifying for the first time on the issue, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne told the committee that he viewed the bill as “acceptable” and something his Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism could “live with” in the future.
Senate Bill 167 by Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, would move the seafood board from under the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to CRT.
The governor currently has the ability to appoint all of the board’s members, but Chabert’s bill would give the authority to the lieutenant governor.
For marketing and promotions, Chabert argued the board would be better positioned under CRT, which has a similar mission. “But there is marketing and promotions and then there is advocacy and lobbying, and those should be separate,” Chabert said. “With this piece of legislation, we address that as well.”
The board relies on money generated by self-imposed fees paid by members of the crab, oyster and shrimp industries, which Chabert’s bill would transfer to the individual task forces that represent them.
Prior to Wednesday’s hearing, Chabert said his bill would make sure that task forces for the oyster industry receive roughly $300,000 annually, the shrimp industry $95,000 and the crab industry $45,000.
He said he based the figures on rough estimations.
“The board has evolved into something it was never intended to become,” Chabert said, adding the individual task forces should control their own money, create their own staffs and handle advocacy and lobbying in-house.
His bill, however, would still allow the task forces to partner with the seafood board for the same marketing and promotional services they are receiving from them now.
The task forces would still be overseen by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries under the legislation.
Chef John Folse, a widely-known food manufacturer and restauranteur, spoke against the bill as the newly elected chairman of the seafood board.
With only $15 million left from a $32 million BP grant awarded in the wake the 2010 oil spill, Folse said the board could soon find itself with a lack of revenue, especially if the changes in Chabert’s bill are enacted.
“I’m worried about where those marketing dollars are going to come from to market seafood if there’s not a strategic plan,” he said.
Folse suggested that the board would be better off as an autonomous entity, which was proposed on the Senate side earlier this session, but later shot down as Chabert’s proposal gained momentum.
While requests for opinions from the Ethics Board have been made in the past regarding individuals personally benefiting from participation in trade shows, as alleged by former board members, Folse said there have been “no ethics violations brought against this board in its 30 years.”
House and Governmental Affairs Chairman Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, countered that there are still concerns regarding the “appearance of impropriety.”
In response, Folse pledged to the committee that ethics would be a focus for him and he would work to “remove the veil of distrust from the public.”
Lafayette seafood entrepreneur and fellow restaurateur Frank Randol, a new member of the seafood board appointed to represent crawfish interests, said he was worried about “breaking stride,” especially as a national message is still being crafted about the quality of Louisiana seafood three years after the BP oil spill.
“We’re not finished rebranding yet,” he said.
Chabert said the seafood board would still be able to continue much of the same operations under the proposed legislation and it grants members more control over issues like hiring an executive director.
“It’s what they wanted,” he told the committee. “I’m scratching my head on that one.”
Chabert passed another reform bill last year that restructured the membership of the board and called for new appointments.
Gov. Bobby Jindal finished making the required appointments in March and the board elected its leadership earlier this month.
Most of the board is new, with Folse being among the few holdovers.
From the Terrebonne-Lafourche delegation, Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, and Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, testified on behalf of the legislation, which now heads to the full House for further debate.