Opinion

|

Closing Range

I Sure Wasted My Vote

I like voting for thrifty, or “fiscally responsible”

My friends think I’m cheap. Sure, pennies cry when they see me, and I cry when I set them free, but I’m not cheap. Like my Depression-born parents, I’m thrifty.

Thrift has limits, so does generosity. And through taxes, other people get to be either thrifty or generous with my money. Therefore, I like voting for thrifty, or “fiscally responsible.”

Apparently, most people don’t share my preference. How else to explain America’s $25-trillion-plus-and-skyrocketing national debt, boosted even closer to escape velocity by over $3 trillion spent so far on COVID-19 relief? Sure, COVID-19 is an unprecedented national, even global emergency. Could I still hope Montana has at least one fiscally responsible politician in Congress, who could at least pretend at fiscal responsibility? Not any more.

On June 17, the U.S. Senate passed an amended HR-1957, the “Great American Outdoors Act” by a margin of 73-25. The bill is actually a whole-cloth substitution with S-3422, sponsored by Sen. Corey Gardner (R-Colorado) and co-sponsored by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana). While it is “bipartisan” – not a single Democrat voted no.

The bill seeks to establish a four-year, $1.9 billion-annually “National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund” out of federal energy royalties, mainly (70 percent) to attack the National Park Service maintenance backlog. Four other agencies split the rest, with the Forest Service getting half.

That’s actually OK, because public lands managers haven’t been able to take care of what they already control, things either burn or fall apart. So a temporary program fixing the backlog and an end date to make sure it all works as intended is helpful, although with a possible new Depression, I’d prefer to wait a while.

The rest of the bill concerns the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Originally written in 1964 with a 50-year expiration date once LWCF’s mission of enhancing outdoor recreation access for both city and country was accomplished, LWCF became permanent last year.

Alongside being sunsetted, LWCF spending has never been mandatory. Congress could appropriate up to $900 million a year, but seldom did. Trust me, the special interests tapping LWCF cash hated that. They had plans for what they’ve evolved to view as “their” money! And that leads to something good in the bill.

America’s land trusts and environmental groups have kept a running total of the funds not spent, which legally remain in the LWCF account – somewhere around $22 billion theoretical dollars from which “appropriations may be made without fiscal limitation.” But that’s only happened once, during President Barack Obama’s presidency. This bill would eliminate that “backlog” from the books.

In trade for the “good” is a dose of poison, however. To be deleted is a clause requiring LWCF funds “remain in the Fund until allocated by Congress.” Instead, “The President” would be expected to allocate the entire $900 million in his budget submission to Congress – so much for recent screaming about “executive power,” right? The exception: Congress may enact legislation “establishing alternate allocations,” basically veto power over the president if Congress appropriates on time. Last year, I don’t think Congress finished even one department’s budget.

In sum, HR-1957 would replace unreachable theoretical money with guaranteed real money. And you can bet there’s a plan on how your money will be spent: Specifically, HR-1957 would eliminate a clause in USC Title 54 200306, Clause (iii): “Limitation – Except for areas specifically authorized by Act of Congress, not more than 15 percent of the acreage added to the National Forest System pursuant to this section shall be west of the 100th meridian,” (about Mandan, North Dakota).

Wow. I’m sure the empire burners in the Forest Service are delighted, as are Weyerhaeuser, Southern Pine and all those land trust partners. After all, most past private-to-public LWCF-enabled transactions of western forest (and farm) lands have objectively been fantastic windfalls for the sellers, involving prices neither fiscally-responsible private buyers nor affected states would, or could pay. In a nutshell, the net result has been no different from something certain Republicans do very well – arranging epic corporate bailouts on the backs of ordinary citizens.

Sure wasted my vote on Steve Daines, didn’t I?