Preparing a budget, whether it is your personal one, a business or a governmental entity, is never a pleasant process. Of course, there are those budget gurus who can really get into this stuff, but for the most of us, it is one of those thankless exercises that is necessary for the fiscal integrity of any enterprise. The federal government is no exception and the exercise in the Congress is certainly so.
The U. S. House and Senate both passed budget resolutions before leaving Washington for a two-week spring break. Passage in the House of Representatives was hailed as proof that Speaker Boehner still can effectively lead House Republicans in getting something done. In the Senate, it took a marathon session until the early morning hours (nicknamed the “vote-a-rama”) to complete the process.
A conference committee will now be appointed to work out the differences in the two measures and eventually this work will be memorialized in the Joint Congressional Resolution. The final budget resolution does not go the President for his signature. Rather, it provides a framework for the Congress as it works with federal spending and revenue targets with the end game being a balanced budget. And as we all know, the balanced budget goal is always an aspiration though seldom obtained.
In addition to focusing on numbers, the congressional budget process also affords lawmakers an opportunity to have a say on policy issues in a non-binding fashion, though the hope is that the authorizing committees in the Congress will take note by incorporating these ideas into legislation. Among many debated, two issues were of particular interest to us and we hope to you as well.
Murkowski Amendment This amendment embraces the idea of the sale or transfer of federal lands to state or local governments provided that the lands eligible are not already parks, monuments or preserves. This amendment passed in the Senate by a close vote of 51-49. The sale or transfer of federal lands is a hot issue in those western states where the federal government is the major landowner. Proponents believe that state agencies are in a much better position to manage responsibly those lands currently under federal control. Opponents to the amendment claim that without federal ownership these lands will be plundered and misused. An important note of clarification, each specific land transfer would still have to go through the Congress for approval. The Murkowski amendment is basically a statement of policy and we expect that Senator Murkowski will now incorporate this concept into specific legislation. The very close nature of the Senate vote means, however, that this idea will remain very controversial going forward.
Fire Suppression Budget – The Senate budget resolution embraced the concept of establishing a separate fund to cover the cost of fighting wildfires. This idea is featured in legislation that ARRA has supported, S. 235 and H.R. 167. The Obama Administration also supports this concept as does the Western Governors’ Association. The House budget resolution acknowledged the budgetary issue associated with funding wildfire expenses, but did not take a proactive stance in supporting the legislation we referenced. We continue to believe that federal recreation budgets will keep on being raided to cover fire fighting expenses unless a permanent remedy is devised to cover this serious fiscal issue.
Head Winds for Utah Public Lands Initiative
We have written on several occasions about the amazing work that is being done in the State of Utah to fashion a comprehensive policy governing the responsible public use of federal lands in that state. This effort has the support of the entire Utah congressional delegation, but its driving force is Rep. Rob Bishop, the current chairman of the House Resources Committee. The concept behind this initiative is to have each county convene stakeholder meetings of interested parties to engage in a collaborative process in establishing priorities on how the federal lands in that locality should be managed. The federal land agencies are involved along with county officials as well as all aspects of recreation, ranching, mining, and timber, in addition to other public interest groups.
Several counties have already completed this process. Recently, all eyes have been on the process taking place in Grant County. The OHV community, in particular, is concerned about the potential loss of over 100 miles of OHV routes in the Moab area, a world class recreation area. Efforts are currently underway to convince the county commission to reconsider some of these plans that could adversely affect OHV recreation.
While we are very concerned about the outcome of this process in Grant County, we much prefer that this process is taking place locally rather than at some regional federal office or for that matter, back here in Washington, D. C. In the end, we believe that the overall Utah Public Lands Initiative will serve as a model for other states to use when determining priorities on the use of federal lands. Chairman Bishop and his colleagues in the Utah congressional delegation deserve our support as they continue to bring this process to the point that it can be memorialized in actual legislation.
Congressional Leadership Change
During the course of the long Senate debate on the budget, Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Minority Leader, released a video announcement that he would not seek re-election to his Senate seat when his term expires in 2016. During the entire time he has been in the Senate leadership, Senator Reid has been a forceful leader for Senate Democrats and a headache for Senate Republicans. While he seems to relish his curmudgeon demeanor, it is his knowledge of the Senate rules which made him a master on the Senate floor especially when he served as the Majority Leader.
Within twenty-hours of Senator Reid’s announcement, his heir apparent for the Senate Democratic Leader position was already decided and the Democratic caucus didn’t even have to take a vote. Senator Charles Schumer of New York will become the next leader when the 115th Congress convenes in January, 2017. While no one would ever call Senator Schumer a curmudgeon, he is known as a very shrewd legislator and will be a very effective leader for the Senate Democrats. Senate Republicans have two years to get ready for the Schumer era.
It is still unclear whether Congress can complete action on a long term transportation reauthorization measure by the end of May deadline. The sticking point is how to pay for a multi-year bill. Because the Recreational Trails Program’s fate is tied up in this legislation, we are following this situation on a daily basis. We hope our crystal ball will become clearer in the next couple of weeks, but our best guess is that a short term extension will be necessary in order to give the legislative process more time to work on a long term solution.
Speaking of legislative updates, while our newsletters make periodic mention of specific pieces of legislation, I would direct your attention to a section of the ARRA website that provides up-to-the-minute status on a whole range of legislation affecting the recreation community. This is an excellent resource and it merits special recognition. Please check it out by clicking here.
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access