After winning support from a key Senate committee, legislation that would give millions of dollars a year to each of the Bay states for land acquisition, habitat improvement and other conservation programs is only one step away from approval.
The question is whether enough time remains for the full Senate to vote on the measure, which won approval in the House by a 315-102 vote in May.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on July 25 added its support to the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA) on a 13-7 vote, with four Republicans joining all nine committee Democrats.
“This is a breakthrough vote that sets the stage for Congress to enact the most significant conservation funding legislation in the nation’s history,” said Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation.
But the vote only came after 11 hours of debate stretching over five days. With just one of 13 must-pass appropriations bills having cleared Congress, Senate Majority Trent Lott, R-MS, a CARA supporter, has expressed concern about getting bogged down with a protracted debate over the measure on the Senate floor.
Congress faces a Oct. 1 deadline to pass appropriations bills that fund government operations, and many members are anxious to go home to campaign. The Senate only has about a dozen voting days scheduled in September.
Western Republicans and other critics have vowed to continue fighting the bill. Mike Hardiman, a lobbyist for the American Land Rights Association and bill opponent, said critics would step up efforts to defeat the measure in the Senate. “This is a $45 billion pile of pork,” Hardiman said. “We’re going to fight this to the last ditch.”
The bill would create a $3 billion-a-year fund for 15 years to pay for an array of conservation activities, from restoring beaches to creating urban parks. It would be paid for out of the roughly $4.5 billion a year the federal government gets in royalties from oil drilling on the outer continental shelf.
Although that money was supposed to go to conservation programs for decades, Congress hijacked it for other uses during decades of budget deficits. With the budget balanced, support has grown for returning the funds to conservation programs, and CARA contains safeguards to keep Congress from diverting the money in the future.
“This is the most significant commitment of resources ever made to conservation by the Congress,” said Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee Chairman Frank Murkowski, R-AK. Murkowski said he believes the bill has the 60 votes necessary to stop a filibuster.
Under a formula used to divide money among states, the legislation would provide Pennsylvania with $50 million a year, Virginia with $51 million, Maryland with $37 million, and the District of Columbia with $7 million.
The money would be used for land acquisition, habitat protection, fish and wildlife research, historic preservation, endangered species protection and other conservation programs spelled out in the bill. Officials in the Bay states see CARA as an important tool for reaching a goal in the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement of permanently protecting one-fifth of the Bay watershed as open space by 2010.
While most of the CARA money would go to states, many Western Republicans strongly oppose the part that would allow the government to make $450 million a year in federal land purchases.
Unlike the House version, the Senate bill would require Congress to vote on each purchase. Despite that, and other inducements such as doubling payments to local governments to replace lost tax revenue for federal land, Western Republicans still don’t like the bill. They say the government mismanages land it already owns and shouldn’t add more acreage.
The White House supports the bill.
For details about how CARA funds would be allocated among Bay states, see “House OKs bill that would give Bay states $2.2 billion for conservation,” June 2000 Bay Journal.