Marine Transportation System

Holy Grail, PortMan!

In Congress, Efficiency, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Legislation, Ports, Water Resources on May 31, 2016 at 11:20 am

If you polled US port directors as to their major objectives in Washington, DC most would put at or near the top of their lists full funding, every year, from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. They would say, if a dollar is collected through the Harbor Maintenance Tax in a given year, then a dollar should be spent on maintenance dredging in ports large and small. One of the other things many would want to see is predictable, biennial water resource bills (WRDA) — say “wurda” — to advance navigation projects.

Well, this is your day, Mr. and Ms. Port Director!

The House Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (H.R.5303) is the timely followup to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (P.L. 113-121), and a hopeful return to a two-year cycle. It also would make it possible for for ports to realize the long desired full-use of the HMTF and the Corps of Engineers harbor maintenance program to be funded directly — as in do-not-stop-at-the-Appropriations-Committee.

But before you start counting long needed dredging dollars…there’s a catch. (We are talking about the congressional budget process, aren’t we?)  Too good to be true?  No….but there is a caveat to this good news. Let’s give it a name….call it “Delayed Port Director Gratification.”

Here’s the story.

Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the ranking Democrat on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, made it a priority to include in the new WRDA bill a provision that would shift the spending of HMTF resources from being in the discretionary category and subject to appropriations to being mandatory. It would mean less constrained budgeting by the Office of Management & Budget and more funding for channel and anchorage maintenance. Overtime, the underwater infrastructure would be more fully maintained to design dimensions. Around five years ago the Corps of Engineers estimated that sustained annual funding of $1,500,000,000 would keep American harbors adequately maintained.

Today even those Federal channels in major ports are not kept at their originally constructed depths and widths. Small harbors often get the short end of the spending stick and the resulting deferred maintenance means a decreasing ability to accommodate commercial and sometimes even recreation vessels. A few years ago the Corps of Engineers reported that almost 30 percent of commercial vessel calls at US ports are constrained due to inadequate channel depths. (Note: Peter DeFazio also included a provision for the small, “emerging” harbors.)

Congress has come to understand that while Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund monies are authorized for spending only for certain port navigation and administrative purposes, the low level of appropriations has resulted in an accumulating, unobligated balance approaching $9,000,000,000. The HMTF has been a convenient pot used by budgeteers to make the Federal deficit look smaller, not to make port channels more efficient. To their credit, House and Senate appropriators have gradually increased O&M funding to the point where the FY 2017 funding bills include $1,300,000,000. Still hundreds of millions of dollars short of meeting the navigation needs in US ports and full use of HMT revenue.

Such mandatory or “direct” spending as the DeFazio provision would make possible could put the trust back in the trust fund…eventually.

When “eventually?”

Eleven years from now….and for good reason.

The Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 requires that if Federal revenue is reduced, or spending is increased, it must be offset by a savings elsewhere or by new revenue. This was given the Monopoly game sounding name of PAYGO. A budget “score” indicates a proposal’s projected cost and that analysis has a ten-year horizon. If Congress were inclined to provide an immediate change in the HMTF statute to dedicate the full collection of the Harbor Maintenance Tax each year to be spent fully on navigation dredging projects each year the House and Senate would have to come up with ten years of replacement revenue for the Treasury.

However, if a change in revenue, such as the fencing of HMT receipts so they no longer would be blended with other Federal tax revenue, would become effective eleven years from now, that proposed change in the law would not require an offset under PAYGO. The House WRDA 2016 bill says it sweetly and simply:

Section 108(a). … [T]here shall be available to the Secretary [of the Army, who heads the Corps of Engineers], out of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, without further appropriation, for fiscal year 2027 and each fiscal year thereafter, such sums as may be necessary…”

The need for an offset is what has discouraged committee action to fix the HMTF in the past. Bill sponsors have largely left unspecified how to cover that multi-billion dollar cost…as a detail to be addressed at another time.

Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, introduced the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Reform Act (S.2729) last March. Their bill takes the immediate gratification route, both to address the “full use” issue and to address complaints among some of the large ports that have benefited little by current law.

The senators’ Seattle and Tacoma ports require little harbor maintenance funding and much the same is true in the San Pedro Bay ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. S.2729 would redirect some trust fund resources to certain needs in those ports.

I will go into the Murray-Cantwell bill in greater detail in another post. Suffice it to say that by not waiting patiently for eleven years to roll around the bill likely would require an offset of 10 x $1,600,000,000, to use current year revenue as an example. The odds against finding consensus in Congress on how to raise/save $16,000,000,000 is enough to eventually discourage most any optimistic lawmaker.

The provision in the recently adopted WRDA 2016 bill is credited to Peter DeFazio, who has the support and cooperation of Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), but a little history is worth noting. The objective of direct or mandatory spending from the HMTF and other infrastructure trust funds was an objective of this committee back when Bill Shuster’s late father, Bud Shuster (R-PA), was chairman of the committee and introduced the Truth in Budgeting Act.

What are the chances of the provision staying in the bill and becoming law? It’s hard to say. Even the delayed gratification strategy will run up against opposition in Congress and the Executive Branch. I expect it will hear objections from the Appropriations and Budget Committees. The former would likely would lose jurisdiction and the latter just doesn’t like mandatory spending even if it is secured by a dedicated tax or user fee. The White House Office of Management & Budget thinks similarly. Long considered the fiscal and policy nemesis of the civil works program, OMB will have a hard time dealing with the idea of the Corps getting its hands on more money. (Legislative Trivia: the House Budget Committee that in a separate report made its arguments against Bud Shuster’s Truth in Budgeting bill was chaired by John Kasich (R-OH)).

To be clear, there are legitimate arguments to be made against making spending from the HMTF mandatory, but if one is looking for a solution to the long-standing problem of under investment in the maintenance of the nation’s navigation system one finds no other practical options.

Okay, so the DeFazio provision will encounter opposition, perhaps debilitating opposition, in the next months. For the moment let’s focus on who will like the policy change represented by the DeFazio provision. Those are the port directors. Also port authority commissioners, maybe some elected municipal officials, governors, and of course, the industries and other stakeholders who depend on reliable harbor maintenance. They will have to make themselves heard on the issue if it has a chance of staying in the bill.

And if it succeeds in becoming law, they will just have to wait until 2027, knowing that the wait will be worth it.  Pbea

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