Marine Transportation System

Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

HMTF: RAMP Gets Its Chance

In Congress, Ports on February 14, 2012 at 11:33 am

HR 7, the surface transportation (and energy) bill that was reported from the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the wee hours of February 3, has a wee Water Transportation title whose only provision is hortatory language about full use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.

The HMTF, along with the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, was left out of the full-funding fixes that the transportation committees muscled through Congress for the highway and transit programs in 1998 (TEA-21) and Airport Improvement Program in 2000 (AIR-21).

Chairman John Mica (R-FL) wanted to do something to remedy that oversight and, for the moment, that something is the “sense of Congress” that the HMTF “is not being used for its intended purpose” and fails “to provide the service for which it was established is unfair and places the National at economic risk.”  The Administration “should request full use” for channel work and “Congress should fully expend” what is in the fund.

Optimistically, the language is a placeholder for something with a bit more teeth, specifically the text of HR 104, the RAMP Act, that Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA) and 171 colleagues sponsored in the hope of prying more out of the trust fund for deep draft channel O&M.  RAMP is an opaque acronym for Realize America’s Maritime Promise, the coalition that has advanced the issue.

HR 104 is modeled on the point-of-order approach employed in AIR-21 and which has had a role in leveraging substantial funding from the Aviation Trust Fund. However that doesn’t mean the procedural remedy would ensure full-funding from the HMTF. There is no guarantee. For that reason HR 104 is thought to have a better chance of winning Hill approval than would, for example, a mandatory spending requirement that is  the Hill committee turf battle equivalent of Iraq invading Kuwait for its oil.

The bill is intended to force the hand of the Appropriations Committees. But, you see, appropriators like to protect their prerogative to appropriate when, how much and for what. That explains why appropriations leaders are fighting RAMP. That and the fact that the appropriators have a long and bruised memory of being bested by one of Mica’s predecessors, Bud Shuster, in the TEA-21 and AIR-21 “truth in budgeting” fights.

There’s another reason. Assume the RAMP Act becomes law. If appropriators were forced to add, say, another $500,000,000 for channel maintenance they would have to do so within the parameters of the annual budget cap established through a separate budget process. If that cap isn’t increased by $500,000,000 then the added O&M money would have to come from other program areas. Having to cut a half-billion dollars is when it isn’t any fun being on the Appropriations Committee.

Chairman Mica decided on a strategy to add the HR 104 to HR 7 when the latter moved to the House floor for amendments. With 171 co-sponsors and a sustained advocacy effort on the part of ports, dredging contractors, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others, an amendment stands a pretty good chance. RAMP advocates also are pressing for the Senate counterpart measure, S. 412, to be added to the MAP-21 surface transportation bill, S. 1816.

On February 1, the Ways and Means Committee held a maritime taxes hearing. Rep. Boustany, who chairs the Oversight Subcommittee of the tax panel, used the hearing to make the case for his bill. He polled witnesses from four ports and Louisiana’s agricultural commissioner.  All spoke to the economic efficiencies of vessels operating at full capacity when provided sufficient channel depth. When allowed to make the most of a ship’s capacity US exports prove to be more competitive on the world market.

On February 3, Ways and Means met on a bill to extend the Highway Trust Fund related taxes, the essential revenue piece for HR 7. Ways and Means Committee does not have jurisdiction over the HMTF even though it does have jurisdiction over the Harbor Maintenance Tax. That didn’t prevent Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) from offering an amendment to 1) add the RAMP Act to the bill and, 2) increase eligible uses of the HMTF. Having naturally deep water the ports of Seattle and Tacoma are among a small number that have little need for channel maintenance funding and in that way do not benefit by the cargo tax collected in those ports. (See the fairness discussion in the previous MTSM post.)  Rep. McDermott explained that by expanding eligible port uses of the HMTF to include “infrastructure improvements or repairs” Seattle, for example, might obtain funding for a needed seawall project. As noted, the committee had no jurisdiction. The amendment was withdrawn. Rep. Boustany said he would work with Rep. McDermott on the matter.

This week on the House floor Boustany amendment #180 will be offered to HR 7. Rep. McDermott will attempt his amendment #178. And you can watch it all on C-Span.  Pbea

HMTF: The Seven Billion Dollar Clue

In MTS Policy, Ports, Water Resources on February 11, 2012 at 6:04 pm

The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) is overdue for a remedy. How do we know? The unspent balance of Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) receipts, plus interest, is a mere $7,000,000,000.

HMT receipts are accounted for in the channel “maintenance” trust fund. However (not to be too picky) the Federal channel system is not fully maintained, and not for lack of money (see “mere” above). That and other information can be found in this 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service.

(A Moment for Trivia: The HMT is considered by some folks a user fee but as the Supreme Court figured out, unanimously and with little effort, the value-based charge on cargo bears little relationship to the service being provided i.e., maintaining channel depths and other dimensions for vessels, and “therefore does not qualify as a permissible user fee” under the export clause of the Constitution.)

The HMT is collected on import and domestic cargo handled at most US ports. On cruise tickets, too. The majority of what is collected comes from the high volume, high value imports; much less from comparatively low value domestic cargo moving between American ports. US exports cannot be charged, sez the Supreme Court.

The HMT was set to cover 100 percent of the cost of coastal channel maintenance. But if 100 percent of the channel maintenance that is needed isn’t done then 100 percent of the funds isn’t spent. It’s the kind of math that even I can understand.

Well, you might say, that’s okay because the money is safe in a trust fund. It is dedicated for maintenance dredging, right? It will be there when it’s needed, right?

Sure, but the balance has grown every year since 1994 and, more to the point, full funding is justified now. According to the Corps of Engineers the total channel system, including small recreational harbors, would cost around $1.3 billion a year. And even if the money is sitting in a trust fund collecting interest, it actually is being put to an unrelated purpose. Turns out the HMTF is a handy offset, especially when you are running a Federal deficit. Makes the deficit a little lower–$7,000,000,000 lower.

The money is collected for a specific purpose but is not being spent fully for that purpose. More than a few folks argue that is not fair. Especially the ones who have a direct stake in channel dredging such as ports and dredging contractors.

But then fairness has been an issue since the HMT and the HMTF were made law.

In the mid-80s Congress deliberated how to offset the cost of Federal channel maintenance (originally by 40 percent and then a few years later by 100 percent). Some ports argued that because heavy cargo weighs down a ship the new user fee for maintaining channel depth should applied to cargo tonnage.

Other ports took the opposite view, pointing to how heavier cargoes are often low value as well as low margin US exports. They said the charge should be on cargo value, arguing that containerized cargo could afford the charge. And since the vessel operators had already succeeded in fending off a fee on the vessel (arguably the direct user of the channel) it came down to which ports and kinds of cargo had the most, or least, votes in Congress.

The “fairness” question was decided in favor of the greater number of ports, which were export oriented and/or whose channel maintenance costs might be expected to exceed channel fee collections in those harbors.

As was patently obvious the major international gateways would produce a substantial portion of the revenue. Indeed in 2005—yes, most HMTF data is musty stuff because the Federal government unreliably produces the mandated annual report—the top cargo value ports of LA (13.7%), NYNJ (12.2%) and Long Beach (12.2%) represented nearly $380 million, which was more than one-third of HMT receipts. The top ten ports by value handled over 68 percent.

Some of them, as it happens, also require little in the way of channel maintenance. (I’ll get more into that subject in a later post.)

The HMT and the HMTF are in ways unfair and they are imperfect by design. The value basis of the tax can be explained as a seaport maintenance policy crafted for nation where no seaport has the same cargo, cargo type, volumes or geography and whose Constitution forbids Congress giving “preference” to one port over another (Article 1, Section 9).

We can’t be so generous and understanding with the way the HMTF is crafted in law and managed in the budget process.

Changing the basis of the HMT is politically unlikely (see “snowball’s chance in Honolulu”). As for the HMTF, changing the law is not easy but it is doable. (To be continued.) Pbea

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