Georgia officials still fuming over deepening slap
by Mary Carr Mayle - BusinessInSavannah.com
Still reeling over the Obama administration’s snub of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project last week, Georgia lawmakers on Friday fired off a letter to Washington asking that the state be allowed to proceed with its own funds.
U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson and all 14 members of the House signed a letter to the Office of Management and Budget regarding the absence of funding for SHEP construction in the president’s fiscal year 2015 budget.
“Today the Georgia delegation stood united in concern and disbelief over the lack of support shown for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project,” U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston said Friday, noting that state Republicans and Democrats stand shoulder to shoulder on the issue.
The first blow came Tuesday when the president’s proposed budget contained no construction funding for the massive public works project. It was followed with a second bombshell less than a day later, when the White House told Gov. Nathan Deal he could not jump-start construction with state funds until the pending multi-billion-dollar Water Resources Development Bill clears Congress and is signed into law.
“I think that’s a matter of interpretation,” Deal said Thursday, reiterating his commitment to use state funds to move the project forward.
The Water Resources Development Act contains language that would correct an outdated spending cap placed on the Savannah harbor expansion when it was first authorized by Congress 15 years ago. The price tag has grown by $193 million, and the White House says Congress needs to raise the spending limit before it can approve any construction.
“Because Congress hasn’t reauthorized the Water Resources Development Act in more than seven years, many projects like the project in Savannah haven’t been able to move forward,” the White House said in a statement Tuesday evening. “This is not a budget problem, this is an authorization problem.”
An interpretation problem
Georgia officials disagree, pointing to the federal spending bill approved by Congress and signed into law by the president in January.
That bill, according to Kingston, essentially moves the project from the planning category to the construction category and suspends spending caps on the Savannah harbor and other projects for two years.
“There is no longer any gray area. In the eyes of the Senate and the House, this is now an ongoing construction project,” he said.
However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state’s federal partner on the project, has made it clear they are not going to fight the White House on the issue.
In a statement released last week, Jo-Ellen Darcy, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, also cited the need for authorization to come from the water bill.
“The President’s 2015 budget has $1.52 million for Savannah Harbor deepening for preconstruction engineering and design,” Darcy said. “The scope of the project has changed since its initial authorization, part of which is an amount of over $300 million for mitigation related to the project. Therefore, the project will need additional authorization for construction.
“We are all very hopeful that authorization will be in the future Water Resources Development Act.”
Kingston said he isn’t surprised by the corps’ position, instead pointing the finger at the president’s Office of Management and Budget.
“OMB is doing the president’s bidding, and it’s becoming clear the president does not want this project to happen,” he said, adding that he feels the OMB is tying the corps’ hands at the highest level.
Politics rearing its head
While most Georgia officials have been vocal in their displeasure at the budget snub, one previously outspoken supporter of harbor deepening has been conspicuously quiet.
In response to requests for comment, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a close colleague of President Obama, said, “We’re pleased with the support and commitment the Obama Administration has provided to make sure this project continues moving forward.”
However, Deal is confident that Reed is working behind the scenes to address the issue.
“As you know, Mayor Reed has been our strongest contact at the White House, and he has been a champion in that regard as well,” Deal told WABE, the National Public Radio station in Atlanta.
“At what point that support will be more intensified, I don’t know. But I feel certain that he knows, by virtue of his past actions, how important this project is to the state.”
Kingston, meanwhile, was pulling no punches.
On a morning talk radio show, he agreed with a caller who suggested the snub might be payback for the Georgia governor’s refusal to expand Medicaid for the Affordable Care Act.
“I think there are some hardcore politics involved,” he said.
State Sen. Jason Carter, a Democratic candidate for governor, agreed, telling the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Jim Galloway that the governor’s past actions were coming back to bite him.
“You have a governor who has played Washington politics at every opportunity and tried to put a stick in the eye of the administration,” Carter told the AJC. ”That clearly contributed to what happened. Absolutely.”
TEXT OF THE DELEGATION LETTER
Ms. Sylvia M. Burwell
The Office of Management and Budget
725 17th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20503
Dear Director Burwell:
We were very disappointed by your agency’s lack of support for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP).
Our delegation is united in the belief that this project should have been funded under the explicit guidance provided to the executive branch through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014. In this legislation, we included construction funds for SHEP (which we have done since fiscal year 2009), a two-year Section 902 waiver, and language explicitly stating that SHEP was to be considered in construction for the budget process. This legislation was signed by the president on January 17 of this year and had a clear directive: fund SHEP.
With a cost-benefit ratio of 5.5 to 1 and an annual net benefit to the nation of $174 million, SHEP has wide support. The President and Vice President have joined the entire Georgia delegation, the Governor of Georgia, Mayor of Atlanta, and countless local leaders in their strong support of SHEP. The president included the Port of Savannah in his 2012 “We Can’t Wait” initiative, and just this fall, the Vice President visited Savannah, stating that we will complete SHEP “come hell or high water.”
This project has been a priority for us, and the Governor and the Georgia General Assembly have allocated $256 million in state funds to be used for the state share of construction for SHEP. As the livelihood of this project has little alternative at this point, it is now imperative that the finalization of the Project Partnership Agreement with Georgia be completed as soon as possible and the Corps be allowed to utilize the state’s $266 million to initiate construction contracts this year. We intend to make this point clear to the Army Corps of Engineers as well.
We hope you would agree that stimulating our economy and creating new jobs through increased import and export trade is important, in order to accomplish that, we need to be serious about the construction of SHEP.