Beware Federal Land Acquisition Efforts during Lame Duck

Source: iStockphoto.comLame-duck sessions can be a dangerous time for the very reason that key legislation can pass absent public accountability. Lawmakers who were not asked by voters to return to Washington after the first of the year—and there are a lot of them—may believe they have nothing to lose and that they are no longer accountable to voters.

Yet Congress’ obligation is to answer to the will of the American people, and that obligation does not end during a post-election legislative session. See for good discussion, Jim Geraghty in National Review.

Most Americans, no doubt, would strongly oppose increasing funding for a federal program that buys up privately owned land and turns it over to federal or state government bureaucrats to own and manage. Yet among the policies Democrats are considering for lame duck passage this month is a little-known provision of the BP oil “spill bill” that would increase funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund uses fees paid by companies that drill offshore for oil and gas to finance federal and state land-acquisition programs.

House Democrats narrowly passed the increased funding as part the “spill bill” last July. The Senate was then supposed to follow suit, but Harry Reid ended up shelving the bill when it didn’t look like he had the votes to move it in even his own caucus.

But now the “spill bill,” including the increased funding for the land-grab program, is looking likely for lame duck. Enviro groups are lobbying the Senate Democrats aggressively to pass the bill, claiming the time is now, and it’s their moral obligation to pass it. According to Marilyn Heiman of the Pew Environment Group, ousted Senators “have nothing to lose” and “it’s the right thing to do.”

Interestingly, just this week, the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform recommended in its blueprint for federal spending cuts that Washington “reduce land acquisition under the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” saying that “the federal government and states have difficulty managing the land they already own”:

Annual funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has typically been around between $250 million and $450 million. However, the President’s request for FY2011 is $619 million, up from last year’s $263 million allocation – a 135 percent increase. The LWCF is used almost exclusively for land acquisition for both federal and state land management agencies, while many argue that the federal government and states have difficulty managing the land they already own. That budget cannot, however, be used for maintenance. The federal government already owns 650 million acres that it has struggled to maintain. So while we continue to experience a maintenance backlog between $13.2 and $19.4 billion, Congress is seeking to acquire even more land. By not funding this account until the maintenance backlog has been decreased less than $1 billion, the federal government will save just under $300 million each year.

Here’s one egregious example of grossly mismanaged land published in today’s Charleston City Paper:

After serving our nation in World War II and Vietnam, the [USS Yorktown] ship retired to Charleston Harbor as the focal point of the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. It’s a source of pride, a beacon of freedom, and, now, an overwhelming reminder of our state’s economic woes.

When the Yorktown steered into its Mt. Pleasant berth 35 years ago, its arrival came with the formation of the Patriots Point Development Authority (PPDA) and the purchase of 367 acres of land, including three miles of water frontage. Purchased through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, the land’s use was intended to provide funding for the PPDA and to be available for public use.

Today, the bulk of the property is occupied by long-term leaseholders: a golf course, a resort hotel and marina, and the College of Charleston’s athletic fields. The PPDA, meanwhile, faces a gargantuan mountain of debt and repair bills. The Yorktown needs a projected $100 million in repairs, while the museum’s second ship, the destroyer USS Laffey, is paying rent at a dock in North Charleston with nowhere to go. The PPDA is unable to repay a $9 million loan from the state for its repairs because in August, the federal government denied a grant request to pay it back. While the Clamagore and Yorktown continue to rust, in 2009 the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham was given away to a museum in Key West to avoid further maintenance costs.

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