Washington Watch, March 2012
On February 27, the United States Senate Agriculture Committee received a letter signed by 643 national, state and local organizations - including The Trust for Public Land - urging the Committee to support conservation funding during the upcoming Farm Bill reauthorization. The letter was timed to arrive the day before the Committee held a hearing on conservation funding in the upcoming Farm Bill.
The current Farm Bill will expire on September 30th. Under the terms of the Budget Control Act (BCA), Congress and the Administration must achieve $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction. The Farm Bill is viewed as a vehicle to achieve a substantial portion of the deficit reduction target. Consequently, the Committee is reviewing the range of Farm Bill expenditures, including conservation, commodities payments and crop insurance.
The support letter is aimed at ensuring that conservation programs do not take disproportionate cuts in the new Farm Bill. It is a demonstration of the broad and deep support for the Farm Bill's Conservation Title, which funds voluntary easement programs, including the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, the Grassland Reserve Program, and the Wetlands Reserve Program.
On Friday, March 2, 2012, The Trust for Public Land joined hundreds of its conservation-minded colleagues - ranchers, forest owners, urban park planners, river enthusiasts and many others - at the America's Great Outdoors White House Conference on Conservation, held at the US Department of the Interior. It was a day focused on continuing efforts through the Administration's America's Great Outdoors Initiative to connect people to the outdoors, protect our rural and urban lands for public benefit and highlight the importance of conservation to the American economy. The conference was led by members of President Obama's cabinet, including DOI Secretary Ken Salazar, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Army Assistant Secretary for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy.
At the end of the day, President Obama spoke to the assembled crowd and reiterated his Administration's commitment to the America's Great Outdoors initiative. Click here for the official transcript of the President's remarks.
The release of the President's budget on February 13 officially began the federal FY 13 appropriations process, and Congressional committee hearings have gotten underway in earnest on the programs.
The budget deficit/debt limit agreement that was signed into law last July remains in effect. That agreement set some top-line numbers that will be the guideline for appropriations bills that Congress will put together in the coming months. This President's budget reflects those top-line spending levels but proposes to meet them not through severe cuts to programs but rather through savings in mandatory programs and tax reform. Needless to say, debate over the economy, spending levels, and priority programs will be the dominant discourse throughout the spring. It is fair to say there will be continued efforts within the House of Representatives to reduce spending for conservation programs and greater levels of support in the Senate. The Trust for Public Land will be working hard to protect the programs and projects that have been proposed in this budget.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund receives $450 million in the President's proposed budget. (The FY 12 enacted level of funding was $322 million.)
Click here for a chart outlining the funding breakdowns within overall the funding level for LWCF.
The Trust for Public Land is pleased that a number of important projects TPL is working on were included in the budget request. Examples include the Estate Maho Bay project at Virgin Islands National Park, the Cypress Abbey project located at Pt. Arena, California, as part of the California Coastal National Monument, Price's Dairy at the brand new Middle Rio Grande NWR in New Mexico, and the continuation of the Ophir Valley project in Colorado's Uncompahgre National Forest.
Based on early indications from Congressional staff, it seems likely that there will be an opportunity, as happened last year, for agencies to produce "recast"-or updated-project lists later in the process. This means that the lists published in the budget documents could change by the time Congress enacts the FY 13 appropriations bills.
Of particular interest this year is the request for $20 million for competitive grants. This is actually a subsection of the LWCF Stateside program, making the total for that program $60 million. These new grants would target community parks and green spaces, landscape-style conservation, and recreational waterways. The goal of these grants would be to fund "signature projects" that create more outdoor recreational opportunities and conserve open space where access to natural areas has been unavailable.
It is also important to note that of the total $270 million for federal land acquisition, $109 million is for projects that are part of a new initiative-"interagency collaborative landscape planning," targeted at three landscapes: Crown of the Continent (MT), Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (WY/ID), and Longleaf Pine restoration (FL/GA).
Other conservation or outdoor recreation programs funded outside of LWCF are also addressed in the FY2013 budget proposed by the President. Click here to see a chart that includes this budget breakdown.
On January 3, 2012, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the City of Virginia Beach would receive a $1 million grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program to protect 82 acres of important coastal wetland habitat at Pleasure House Point in Virginia Beach. Pleasure House Point, which includes a 122-acre waterfront parcel at referred to as the Lynnhaven parcel, had been slated for a 1,000 unit housing development until the downturn in the real estate market presented an important conservation opportunity. The Lynnhaven property includes estuarine emergent wetlands, tidal mudflats, near shore habitat and maritime forest. TPL worked closely with the City of Virginia Beach and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to submit a proposal to the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program, which provides matching funds through a national, competitively awarded grant process for projects that acquire, restore, and enhance the wetlands of coastal states.
The conservation community had reason to celebrate in February, as H.R. 1964 attained a remarkable level of support with 300 cosponsors. H.R. 1964, introduced by Congressman Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania, would make permanent the enhanced deduction for the donation of conservation easements.
The bill was introduced last year before the temporary provision expired at the end of 2011. The extraordinary number of cosponsors attests to the popularity of this provision. Enactment of H.R. 1964 will allow taxpayers to continue to deduct up to 50% of adjusted gross income (AGI) for donations or bargain sales of qualified conservation easements. Eligible farmers and ranchers can deduct up to 100% of AGI, and taxpayers are able to carry forward these deductions for 15 years. This special incentive for conservation easement donations addresses the needs of landowners whose wealth is in land rather than in cash.
In order to allow taxpayers to take advantage of this incentive in 2012, an extension must pass this year, retroactive to the beginning of the year. At a minimum, another temporary extension needs to pass. The Senate bill, S. 339, is sponsored by Senator Max Baucus, who is also the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He will be a key player in passing any tax-related legislation before Congress adjourns. A conservation tax incentive is likely to be folded into a much larger tax bill, but the precise outlines of such legislation have yet to be determined.
Both the House and the Senate are debating renewals of the federal transportation bill (formerly known as ISTEA, TEA-21 and SAFETEA-LU). The authorization for transportation spending formally expired in September 2009, but Congress has enacted multiple short-term extensions as they grapple with how to pay for the high cost of urgent transportation-related programs. This is a challenge because the current gas tax does not raise nearly enough revenue for the Highway Trust Fund to meet current needs, but a tax increase is not politically palatable at this time.
The current extension expires March 31, 2012. Given this deadline, there appeared to be tremendous momentum on the transportation issue when Congress reconvened in late January, but the legislation produced in the House proved to be a political hot potato, and the Senate is slogging through dozens of amendments. It is unclear with all this whether Congress can enact a new bill—rather than just an extension—by March 31, but passing the bill remains high on the agenda for this session of Congress.
The following is a summary of the current situation.
House bill: The House began considering a $260 billion, five year bill in early February but leadership pulled it from the floor on February 17, just before a week-long recess. The House bill made major changes to existing transportation programs-including eliminating programs such as Safe Routes to Schools, Scenic Byways, Rail-Trail conversions and certain categories of Transportation Enhancements. To pay for the bill, the House proposed to increase offshore oil and gas drilling in many locations-including the Arctic Ocean-and also proposed fast-tracking the Keystone pipeline decision. Finally, the bill eliminated the 30-year link between mass transit funding and the Highway Trust Fund, threatening funds for high-speed rail, subway systems, etc. As a result, the bill collapsed under the weight of its own provisions, drawing opposition from fiscal conservatives for its high cost, suburban Republicans for its impact on mass transit, and from all Democrats because of its major changes to successful transportation programs and because they were not provided a role in its crafting.
The House leadership is now rethinking its strategy, and it is unclear what the plan is. It likely would entail a shorter time frame, leave mass transit funding in place, retain the link between new energy production and transportation funding, and eliminate certain programs.
During consideration of the bill in the House Transportation Committee, an amendment was offered by Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI) to restore funds for the trails programs and Safe Routes to Schools program, but it lost by two votes.
Senate bill: The Senate began debate during the week of February 27 on a bipartisan, two-year $109 billion bill that uses means other than expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling as a way to cover costs. The bill first came up for consideration on the Senate floor the week of February 13, but ran into problems with efforts to attach amendments related to contraception, EPA rules on mercury emissions, the Keystone pipeline, and other nongermane issues. The debate will likely go for two weeks or more.
The Senate bill does not take the extreme measures of the House proposal in eliminating programs, but it does make important changes. The bill:
- Consolidates, but does not eliminate, many existing programs like Transportation Enhancements, Recreational Trails, National Scenic Byways, and Safe Routes to School into larger umbrella programs. For example, TE would be an eligible use of funds under the Congestion, Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program.
- Gives the states increased flexibility to determine transportation priorities, but existing programs are still eligible to receive federal funding.
- Retains the guarantee of funding from the Highway Trust Fund for the Congestion, Mitigation, and Air Quality (CMAQ) program.
Among the amendments filed for consideration by the full Senate are an amendment to be offered by Senator Klobuchar (D-MN) to restore a set-aside for recreational trails, and a Cardin (D-MD)-Cochran (R-MS) amendment to ensure that Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) have the ability to secure funds for local projects.