GOP Looks to Spend Big on National Parks

Lawmakers argue it’s a fiscally sound move to tackle the maintenance backlog, but some conservatives are unconvinced by the lack of an offset.

Yosemite National Park in California
AP Photo/Tammy Webber
Oct. 4, 2018, 8 p.m.

Republicans in the Trump era are building a reputation as reckless spenders, and now they're even willing to bust the ledger on a policy traditionally outside the GOP wheelhouse: environmental conservation.

Lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol are moving full steam ahead on legislation to funnel energy revenues to the National Park Service to rein in a roughly $12 billion maintenance backlog.

So far, however, the big proponents of the legislation aren’t prioritizing a budget offset. That’s setting off alarm bells for environmental groups—and fueling opposition from conservatives both on and off Capitol Hill who have repeatedly chided Republican fiscal policies.

“Not having a pay-for in the bill is a missed opportunity to implement reform that would allow for innovative financing solutions to address NPS's maintenance backlog rather than simply increase the national debt,” said Nick Loris, an environment expert at the Heritage Foundation.

The legislation, dubbed the Restore Our Parks Act, would carve out $1.3 billion annually for five years to fix aging roads and bridges, trails, and visitor centers, among other infrastructure. That sum would come from the royalties that the federal government generates from onshore- and offshore-energy revenue.

A $6.5 billion price tag is expected to be tacked onto the legislation, according to advocates and Hill staff.

That’s not going to help a skyrocketing deficit and debt. The White House Office of Management and Budget predicts a nearly $1 trillion deficit by 2019, a roughly 50 percent increase from fiscal 2017 when President Trump stormed Washington and Republicans retained both chambers of Congress. The national debt grew more than $1.2 trillion in fiscal 2018 and now comes in at roughly $21.6 trillion, according to a Treasury Department-sponsored website. Analysts point to tax cuts and spending increases.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee signed off on the legislation in a 19-4 vote Tuesday. Sens. Mike Lee and John Barrasso opposed the measure over the lack of an offset. Sen. Jim Risch opposed the bill on that front, as well, but also argues that the funding should be subject to the annual appropriations process, according to a spokeswoman for the senator.

A bipartisan group of members on the lower chamber’s Natural Resources Committee, meanwhile, shot similar legislation to the House floor three weeks ago. A score could come any day, although a spokesperson for the Congressional Budget Office said the agency isn’t specifying a timeframe. The CBO typically scores legislation roughly two weeks after committee approval.

Supporters of the bill say it will boost visitation to parks and save money by preempting more-serious infrastructure projects.

“Not fixing a part of a bridge means the bridge collapses. Not fixing the roof means the building is ruined,” Sen. Rob Portman, the lead sponsor of the bill, said during the Senate markup. “So, I think this is a fiscally responsible way to avoid the compounding effect you have when you don’t deal with deferred maintenance.”

Portman, a former Office of Management and Budget chief under George W. Bush, and other key Republican backers are already in the fiscal doghouse, according to the conservative Club for Growth’s legislative scorecard, which assesses votes on fiscal responsibility, tax cuts, and cuts to regulation. He ranks 45th in the upper chamber on the Club’s scorecard while Sen. Lamar Alexander, another big proponent of the legislation, ranks 48th.

But the absence of a payment mechanism could also drag some tried-and-true fiscal conservatives into trouble with these groups. Steve Daines ranks sixth in the Senate, according to the Club for Growth, while Jeff Flake, another supporter of the backlog bill, ranks first alongside Pat Toomey.

Daines, however, doesn’t seem concerned about blowback. “As a fiscal conservative, I always prefer to see offsets,” he told National Journal. “But let me say this. I think you look at the return on investments of spending for our national parks. It is a tremendous catalyst for our outdoor economy.”

The park service administers 417 areas nationwide, and sixty of those are formal national parks. The most iconic natural landscapes in the country, from Crater Lake in Oregon to the Everglades, comprise that top tier.

The bill’s supporters, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, stress that the energy revenue is not earmarked for specific programs; rather, it heads directly into the general fund. A big portion of the billions of dollars generated each year in royalties is already flagged for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Historic Preservation and state revenue-sharing, but a total of $3.7 billion was sent to the U.S. Treasury in fiscal 2017, according to Pew Charitable Trusts research obtained by National Journal.

Still, the revenue is spent on a wide range of public programs. But other senators who are pushing the bill, such as Maine independent Angus King and New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich, brushed off the need for an offset.

“I think that it makes a whole lot more sense to send that money to the parks backlog than, say, to the general fund as some sort of slush fund,” Heinrich told National Journal. “Letting this stuff fester is not being fiscally responsible. Letting this stuff fester is a recipe for additional debt.”

Options are available to cut back spending. Loris cited a few parks-specific payment options, including raising entrance fees. The Interior Department dropped a proposal in April to drastically hike fees, following a public outcry and political criticism. Instead, the department raised fees by a flat $5.

Offsets are often, however, unaffiliated with the actual spending. The Heritage Foundation’s Blueprint for Balance lays out a list of offsets, ranging from entitlement cuts to more arcane options, like the elimination of agricultural subsidies or the selling off of federally-owned power administrations.

And now, even the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Lisa Murkowski—who the Club for Growth ranked second-to-last among sitting Republicans on its scorecard—is setting the stage for a funding battle.

“We’re going to need to be working together to identify what will be determined a suitable offset for what we expect to be a CBO score of about $6.5 billion. That’s a lot of money,” Murkowski, a top appropriator, told lawmakers during the markup. “I don’t think we’ve seen it in a long time…legislation of this magnitude that has not been paid for.”

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