Washington Watch, May 2013

 President's Budget Includes $600 Million for LWCF

On April 10, President Obama finally released his FY 2014 budget proposal, which includes a robust proposal of $600 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)—including $15M for urban parks—as well as funding for other key conservation programs.

The LWCF request is a meaningful investment in this important program, coming as it does during a time of cuts to other programs. The current LWCF funding level is about $306M so the Federal FY 14 proposal is a clear priority area for the Administration.

However, this LWCF proposal comes with a significant twist: $400M of the total $600M is deemed as "discretionary"; i.e. subject to annual appropriations - and the other $200M is deemed as "mandatory", which means Congress cannot adjust that level but which under congressional budget rules requires a spending offset. The Administration has split the conservation project lists into "discretionary" and "mandatory," with the latter pot covering lowest ranked projects.

As in any year, Congress has the final say on setting funding levels for LWCF and other programs, and it is a very challenging budgetary environment. As a leading voice in the LWCF Coalition, The Trust for Public Land will be fully engaged in the nationwide campaign to bring this proposal to reality.

 Federal FY 2013 Final Budget and Sequestration

On March 27, Congress finally completed the Federal FY 2013 budget and appropriations process after a six-month delay. The final agreement did not overturn the automatic across-the-board budget cuts known as "sequestration" that kicked in on March 1. Here is the general description of budget cuts that were triggered under sequestration:

  • $42.7 billion in defense cuts (a 7.9 percent cut).
  • $28.7 billion in domestic discretionary cuts (a 5.3 percent cut) ** this is where our programs sit
  • $9.9 billion in Medicare cuts (a 2 percent cut).
  • $4 billion in other mandatory cuts (a 5.8 percent cut to nondefense programs, and a 7.8 percent cut to mandatory defense programs)

The federal agencies submitted their final "spend plans" to Congress in early May, which include the final determination of how they will spend LWCF and Forest Legacy Program project dollars following the imposition of the mandatory cuts.

 Farm Bill Extended to September

The "fiscal cliff" agreement reached at the beginning of the year includes a 9-month extension of the current Farm Bill. This means that Congress must still reach agreement on a new 5-year Farm Bill. Last year, the Senate passed its version of a Farm Bill, but the House of Representatives did not complete action on its version. With the swearing-in of a new Congress, the legislative process must start over on farm legislation, and both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees recently took action by "marking up" new Farm Bill proposals. Floor action in the Senate is beginning the week of May 20, and the House is expected to act in June.

Both the House and Senate-proposed Farm Bill establishes a new easement program with two components: the Wetlands Reserve Program and an "Agricultural Lands Easement program," which would merge the Farm & Ranch Lands Protection Program and Grasslands Reserve Program. Under the Senate bill, the new program would be funded at $2.2 billion over 5 years. The funding split between wetland easements and agricultural land easements would be 60/40 "to the extent practicable," respectively.

 Conservation Easements extended until end of 2013

The conservation easement tax incentive, which expired at the end of 2011, was extended until the end of 2013 in the final "fiscal cliff" agreement. This means that landowners who donate conservation easements in 2012 and 2013 will be able to deduct the amount of the donation up to 50% of adjusted gross income (100% for farmers and ranchers). The Trust for Public Land is an active member of a coalition led by the Land Trust Alliance working to secure a permanent extension of the tax credit.

 Update on post-Sandy disaster relief funding

Before Congress adjourned for 2012, the Senate passed a $60.4 billion Superstorm Sandy relief package, which included funding for coastal protection and mitigation in the affected states. The bill was approved by the Senate on New Year's Eve, but House Speaker Boehner declined to bring it up for a vote in the House before the end of the 112th Congress. Many Republicans from the Northeast furious that Congress would adjourn without passing the emergency bill and Speaker Boehner subsequently promised votes on two bills when the new Congress convened. One bill, which passed the House on January 4, replenished funds for flood insurance, and the second bill, which passed the House on Jan 15 provided about $50 billion in relief aid.

The Senate passed the House version on January 28. Unfortunately, some provisions that were in the original Senate bill were not included in the House version. Funding for the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP), for example, was left out of the legislation. In addition, during House consideration an amendment offered by Congressman Bishop of Utah was adopted to prohibit the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture from using the disaster aid funds for purchasing land.

The Trust for Public Land and its conservation partners fought against this amendment, but it passed on a largely party-line vote. Although it is not likely that funds appropriated in the bill would have been used for land acquisition, the Bishop prohibition means that agencies like the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service will lose the flexibility to acquire land should a circumstance arise where land acquisition was a reasonable component of restoring parks and refuges.

Other parts of the legislation include substantial funding for Community Development Block Grants, which could be used by communities to restore local parks and generally rebuild their local infrastructures with an eye to greater resiliency. The bill also provides substantial funding for hazard mitigation, which in some cases involves the purchase of land which should not be redeveloped because of high risk of future storm damage. The Trust for Public Land offices in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and other affected states are already working closely with local governments to build stronger, more resilient communities for the future.

 National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grants

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on January 29 the recipients of $20 million in grant funds from the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Program. The FY 2013 grants went to 24 projects in 13 states and territories to conserve and restore coastal wetlands and their fish and wildlife habitat. According to USFWS, an additional $21.3 million in matching funds will be provided by partner contributions from state and local governments, private landowners and conservation groups. The National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program operates under provisions of the 1990 Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act and funding is provided by Sport Fish Restoration Act revenue - money generated from an excise tax on fishing equipment, motorboat and small engine fuels.

Working from the calendar used for FY 2013 grants, USFWS will work with states to proceed with the FY 2014 grant process over the next few months. Applications for the next round of annual grants are expected to be due in the summer of 2013.

In FY 2013 The Trust for Public Land partnered on a $1 million grant at Fudge Point in Mason County in Washington state and a $1 million grant at Ryan Creek in Humboldt County, California and was involved in a $1 million grant at Upper Devereux Slough in Santa Barbara County, California. Additionally, a prior year's grant of $1 million was recently reprogrammed to benefit the Tom's Point project in Marin County, California.

 Sally Jewell Confirmed as new Secretary of the Department of Interior; Defends LWCF

On April 10, 2013, Sally Jewell was approved by a vote of 87-11 in the Senate in favor of her confirmation as the next Secretary of the Department of Interior. (Details in press release.)

At a budget hearing on May 7 in front of the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee, she continued to show her leadership on LWCF and said that mandatory funding fulfills a 50-year promise to the American people. We look forward to our continued work with Secretary Jewell on fully funding LWCF and are grateful for her strong support.

 Senators Introduce Bill to Fund LWCF in Full (S.338)

Fifty years to the day after President John F. Kennedy sent the original Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) bill to Congress, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) proposed legislation on February 14, 2013 that would fully realize that program's promise to conserve parks, open spaces, and wildlife habitat for the benefit of hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation.

The legislation S.338, titled the "Land and Water Conservation Authorization and Funding Act of 2013," is supported by a broad coalition of conservation and recreation organizations and outdoor industry businesses. (Details in press release.) It was introduced with 4 cosponsors: U.S. Senators Mark Udall (D-CO), Jon Tester (D-MT), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Tom Udall (D-NM).

As of today, there are 30 co-sponsors of the bill and The Trust for Public Land and LWCF Coalition members and supporters are continuing to reach out to Senators to add more co-sponsors to this important legislation.

 Senate Passes Budget that Returns Oil and Gas Revenues to Land and Water Conservation

In an early morning vote on March 23, 2013, the U.S. Senate passed a framework for the Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 budget that for only the second time in more than 40 years would enable full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), America's premier conservation program. (Details in press release.)

This full funding commitment, put forward by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Chair of the Senate Budget Committee, would fulfill the long-standing promise to the American people that revenues from offshore oil and gas development be used for the protection of parks, open spaces, and trails in communities around the country.

The legislation that passed the Senate, known as the Concurrent Resolution on the Budget, sets overall funding levels for the federal FY2014 budget beginning October 1 and, within those levels, assumes the fully authorized $900 million level from oil and gas revenues will be invested in LWCF, laying the groundwork to end the chronic diversion of the money for other purposes.

 Momentum for LWCF Grows with House and Senate "Dear Colleague" Letters

With the congressional appropriations process underway for FY 2014, Members of the House and Senate have written to the chairmen and ranking members of the respective appropriations subcommittees that oversee the Interior Department and the Forest Service to demonstrate their support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the Forest Legacy Program.

In the House of Representatives, four congressmen spearheaded a letter to Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Michael Simpson and Ranking Member James Moran dated April 12, 2013. The leaders of the letter were Reps. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania), Jim Gerlach (R-Pennsylvania), Rush Holt (D-New Jersey), James McGovern (D-Massachusetts), Dave Reichert (R-Washington), and Mike Thompson (D-California). In addition to the six sponsors of the letter, 151 of their colleagues signed on to the letter.

In the Senate, four senators issued a letter to Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jack Reed and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski dated April 26, 2013. The leaders of the letter were Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), Susan Collins (R- Maine), Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire). In addition to the four sponsors of the letter, 44 of their colleagues signed on to the letter.

 Conservation Tax Incentive Bill introduced in Senate

On March 12, Senator Max Baucus of Montana introduced S. 526, the Rural Heritage Conservation Extension Act of 2013. This bill will permanently extend the enhanced deduction for the donation of conservation easements. Since 2006 taxpayers have been allowed 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.

The provision has expired every one or two years, and Congress has frequently had to reauthorize it retroactively. This leads to a considerable amount of uncertainty among landowners as they try to plan for the future of their ranches and farms. The Baucus bill will make the enhanced deduction permanent in order to provide consistency and restore the confidence of landowners that the deduction will be available beyond one or two more years. The current extension, which was passed by Congress as part of the FY 2013 budget bill (see the Washington Watch budget update article), will again expire at the end of this year.

It is noteworthy that Senator Baucus is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees all tax legislation. A primary cosponsor of the bill is Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who is the ranking Republican on the committee.

A similar bill is expected to be introduced in the House of Representatives later in May. It will be sponsored by Congressman Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania and Congressman Mike Thompson of California. Last year there were 311 House cosponsors, and such overwhelming support is anticipated again in the 113th Congress (2013-14).