Senate water bill deserves serious scrutiny
April 10, 2013
We write urging greater scrutiny of misguided and potentially costly provisions in S.601, the Water Resources Development Act of 2013. It is our understanding that the Senate may take up consideration of S. 601 soon. After rushed consideration in committee, and with the Senate’s attention elsewhere, we believe the Senate and taxpayers deserve a thorough vetting of this far reaching legislation.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the legislation’s impacts on projects, policy, and cost-sharing would cost taxpayers more than $12.5 billion, yet because of budget rules this estimate does not reflect the true potential price tag. For instance, the bill is full of a myriad of provisions that would serve to undercut long-standing cost sharing rules; placing greater burdens on federal taxpayers at a time of severe budgetary pressures.
We have several concerns with the legislation. The bill appears to simply approve whatever the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommends. While we appreciate the effort to avoid earmarks for new project authorizations, we believe the response should not be to just approve whatever the Administration recommends, but to demand projects meet certain enhanced cost-benefit criteria, subject them to prioritization, and to limit the number of projects. With an estimated project backlog of more than $60 billion for the agency, we cannot simply pile more projects on the to-do list.
In addition the legislation mandates full payout of the annual revenues generated by the Harbor Maintenance Tax for harbor dredging. There are problems with the Harbor Maintenance Tax and Trust Fund, but this provision does little to solve them. Instead of just paying out the cash because it is burning a hole in lawmakers’ pockets, Congress should try to reform the system by establishing prioritization of funding, reducing the inherent cross-subsidies, or reducing the tax. Making matters worse, the legislation rolls back non-federal cost-sharing for port maintenance dredging and enables the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to pay for projects like berth dredging and confined disposal of contaminated sediments which have always been the responsibility of the ports, not the federal taxpayer.
The bill has a provision to simply extend beach replenishment projects by 15 years when their 50-year authorized life expires. These are projects that were conceived in the 1960s and have benefitted from heavy federal subsidies. Lawmakers should not automatically extend these, or other, projects without thorough review. In addition, cost-sharing rules were changed to require a 50 percent cost-share from sand pumping project beneficiaries starting in 1999. The committee bill would apparently end-run that policy and grandfather a reduced 35 percent local cost-share for these extended beach replenishment projects.
The bill contains a “BRAC” style commission to reduce the backlog of authorized but not constructed projects, but so many projects are excluded from consideration it is far from clear that this effort will help. In fact, this bill could result in an increase in the backlog.
Finally, while the project authorization avoids earmarks, there are several provisions in the bill that are targeted toward narrow interests that could be viewed as akin to earmarks. We believe this “working the equation backward” approach to public policy is inappropriately tipping the scales toward particular beneficiaries and problematic in the same way as earmarks, even if it doesn’t meet the technical definition.
The above are a few of the provisions we would like to highlight, but clearly this important legislation needs to be subjected to further review and debate. For more information contact Josh Sewell, 202-546-8500 or Josh(at)taxpayer.net.
Americans for Prosperity
Club for Growth
Competitive Enterprise Institute
Council for Citizens Against Government Waste
National Taxpayers Union
R Street Institute
Taxpayers for Common Sense
Taxpayers Protection Alliance