Walter Jones

Port funding adds dynamic to the campaign

The absence of funding for the deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel in President Barack Obama's budget took on political significance in Georgia when it was released.

Instead of hundreds of millions of dollars for dredging 5 feet along the 30-mile channel, the president is only asking Congress for $1 million for some engineering work.

Gov. Nathan Deal, who has been lobbying Washington for its share of the $652 million, announced the state would begin work with the $231 it has already committed for its share. That prompted federal officials to remind him that Congress still must pass a water-projects bill that has been in conference negotiations since October over differences between the House and Senate versions. The bill includes the update to the inflated price of the project.

This project has provided the politicians with an opportunity for creative wordsmithing.

Just six months ago Vice President Joe Biden's offered a colorful phrasing at the Port of Savannah in September when he said, "We are going to get this done, as my grandfather would say, come hell or high water."

So when the budget was released, it was the Republicans' turn to coin a turn a phrase on end. "It's more accurate to say the administration is going to put us through the former to get to the latter," the governor said.

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston made a rare appearance in the House well to speak about his frustration.

"We found out yesterday that when we say things here, that we mean things different than they do in Washington," said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. "Because we found you yesterday that 'come hell or high water' means about the same thing as 'if you like your health insurance you can keep it.'"

The last part was a dig at the president's own comment before the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which became known as Obamacare.

As it happened, Biden was in Georgia raising money at a private reception for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn the day the budget was released. It created some heartburn for her. Later, when she qualified as a candidate, she told reporters she had asked him about the paltry budget figure, and she expressed her own insistence that the money come.

The questions dampened some of the excitement of her formal entry into the race. And when a reporter asked if Obama was punishing Deal for refusing to expand Medicaid as part of Obamacare, she didn't deny it was a possibility.

“I can’t speculate about the political motives behind the decision,” she said. “Obviously I believe we should expand Medicaid. And I believe we should do that and focus on people and not politics.” So, after years of Georgia's Republican governors, senators and members of Congress gingerly avoiding partisan rhetoric or threats when talking about the Savannah deepening project, suddenly everything has changed.

Deal is already trying to use it to bludgeon his Democratic challenger, Jason Carter as guilt through association. Nunn got her share of barbs, too, from Republicans in the Senate race. Expect to hear the issue brought up again and again up until either the November election or the federal money begins flowing. 

 (Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998.)



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