Despite a lack of support from Gov. Bobby Jindal, viable alternatives — including a tax or fee — are being considered to support Louisiana's French language program.
Community activists are raising money on a grassroots level to help a statewide French language program overcome Gov. Bobby Jindal's decision to cut nearly 40 percent of its budget. Moreover, Acadiana lawmakers are floating the idea of a dedicated tax or fee to sustain the program in the future.
The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) lost $100,000 through Jindal's veto in the $25 billion state budget. In his veto message, Jindal said CODOFIL "has been adequately funded." He offered no other reasons for his decision.
While the size of the cut is puny compared to the total state budget, supporters note that it's a huge amount for the organization. At the close of the last year's legislative session, CODOFIL's budget was $257,000, all of which was managed by the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.
With $100,000 less this year, CODOFIL is losing a part-time employee and shutting down certain operations related to the recruiting of teachers, says Lucius Fontenot, a board member of FrancoJeunes, which is privately raising money for the council.
Fontenot, a Mamou native, says FrancoJeunes comprises French-speaking professionals from Acadiana who want to preserve and promote their shared heritage. It's a young band of activists. At 33, Fontenot admits to being the "old man in the group." So far, FrancoJeunes has collected more than $13,000 in donations through Indiegogo.com, an online funding platform. At the "100,000 Cajuns and Creoles" campaign page (www.indiegogo.-com/100kla), the pitch is for everyone who cares about the program to give $1.
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, whose office administers CODOFIL, pulled a dollar bill from his wallet during a press conference in Lafayette earlier this month. At the event, Dardenne said he didn't know about the budget reduction ahead of time and that the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism is exploring grants and other funding possibilities for the council.
Rep. Stephen J. Ortego, D-Carencro, says he's still confused about the veto, specifically why it happened.
"I think because of the history and culture of these Louisiana people — Cajuns, Creoles, Native Americans — I think the veto was symbolically a slap in the face to everyone who cares about that heritage," Ortego says. "There's a special feeling about CODOFIL. People care about and want it funded. Look, if [the Department of Transportation and Development] got cut tomorrow, I don't think people would be raising money for it."
Ortego says CODOFIL will need a long-term funding strategy. That could mean creating a dedicated revenue source, including a fee or tax paid by a certain constituency to support related services, he says. "I can tell you that members of the Acadiana delegation are exploring ways to change that funding future," Ortego adds.
The Louisiana Legislature created the council in 1968 to "do any and all things necessary to accomplish the development, utilization, and preservation of the French language." CODOFIL creates teaching materials, works with international visitors, oversees youth programs and offers a variety of other services. But the council seems to be doing less of it than ever.
CODOFIL had a $1 million budget in the late 1980s, and the 1990 Census revealed that approximately 250,000 Louisianans spoke French as their primary language at home. In the 2000 census, that figure dropped to 198,784.
"I don't know, but maybe this is really the best for CODOFIL in some kind of way," Fontenot says. "CODOFIL has been kind of forgotten. Its mission had been forgotten. Maybe all of this will help restore some pride in the culture."
Jeremy Alford is a journalist in Baton Rouge. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.