A few Republicans hoping to win in battleground states in 2020 are looking to a proposal for Congress to permanently fund a popular conservation program that could prove popular with Democratic and Republican voters alike.
It’s been just two months since President Donald Trump signed a conservation and lands package that permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund. But conservation backers—including two of the more vulnerable Senate Republicans heading into the 2020 elections, Sens. Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Susan Collins (Maine)—still want to essentially guarantee LWCF funding each year.
Backing mandatory conservation funding isn’t new for Collins or Gardner. Both cosponsored a bill (S. 569) by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) in the last Congress that called for permanently reauthorizing the conservation program and making its funding mandatory. But the bill signed by Trump only permanently reauthorized the program, preventing it from expiring—it didn’t include mandatory funding.
They and other supporters will have to overcome plenty of hurdles, including many Republicans and appropriators in both chambers who fear putting conservation funding on autopilot and Congress giving up the reins on spending. But backing conservation is generally seen as good politics.
The Senate in February approved the permanent reauthorization of the fund 92-8, a strong endorsement for a program that sends hundreds of millions of dollars a year into national parks, wildlife refuges, hiking and biking trails, and ballparks.
“I mean, who is against that stuff, right?” says Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), noting the program is funded not by taxpayers but from federal receipts from offshore oil and gas drilling.
He and many other Republicans wonder whether Congress is ready to move another LWCF bill so soon after passing the permanent reauthorization measure, which he noted took nearly two years to get signed into law.
But Gardner and Collins are more optimistic. They’re rallying behind a bill Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) introduced in April to “permanently fund” the LWCF at $900 million a year, meaning it would no longer be at the mercy of Congress.
Lawmakers generally have provided roughly half that amount and at times have allowed the fund itself to lapse. Conservation backers are applauding House Democrats for proposing to boost such funding to $524 million, which would be the largest total since 2003 but still well shy of the $900 million authorized level.
Colorado’s Gardner, considered one of the two most vulnerable Senate Republicans heading into 2020, said Manchin’s Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act (S. 1081) has “significant” Colorado support.
“And in the Senate this is something that has incredibly broad bipartisan” backing, and might move either on its own or part of a larger package, he told Bloomberg Environment.
Boosting Maine Conservation, Recreation
Collins, a four-term incumbent who has backed the conservation program for decades, was reelected by a wide margin in 2014 but has seen her state embrace Democrats, at least in top statewide offices: Maine’s two House seats are now held by Democrats, as is the governor’s mansion.
“The LWCF is our country’s most important and successful conservation and outdoor recreation program,” Collins said in a statement to Bloomberg Environment. “The broad, bipartisan support LWCF received reflects the outdoor recreation opportunities this program has created in every county across the country” and will strengthen local conservation and recreation efforts in Maine, “helping to ensure both current and future generations can enjoy the beauty of its natural resources.”
In Maine, multiple conservation groups back Collins’ efforts, including Maine Conservation Voters, the Nature Conservancy in Maine, and Natural Resources Council of Maine. They say the conservation fund has protected some of Maine’s most treasured landscapes, as well as local projects, including trails and historic sites.
In addition to Collins and Gardner, the bill’s 35 Senate cosponsors include four other Republicans: Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Daines also faces reelection in 2020 and strongly backs the bill. Though he isn’t seen as particularly vulnerable, Montana hasn’t relegated Democrats to the sidelines as in some other western states.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), another Republican up for reelection in 2020, also sees the need for permanent funding for the program, although he has yet to formally back Manchin’s bill.
“I think it would be helpful,” he told Bloomberg Environment. “I think this could be a great vehicle for making people comfortable with potential energy exploration” by making a more direct connection between offshore oil and gas drilling and the funding of the LWCF, he said.
House Challenges Ahead
Over in the House, Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) is also discussing a proposal similar to Manchin’s, but he hasn’t introduced a bill.
“I think there’s real energy in the House” for addressing the backlog of national park projects, he said, adding that there’s a deal to be made on a package that addresses the backlog and those who want mandatory spending.
Grijalva said he’s considering legislation that instead of setting a total dollar amount would make LWCF spending a set portion, perhaps 65 percent, of the $900 million level Congress has authorized.
But the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who helped secure permanent LWCF reauthorization, said Grijalva is “being a little optimistic” on the outlook for mandatory funding.
House Republicans are skeptical, he said, but so are appropriators from both parties in both chambers who are leery about giving up control over that large of an amount.
“Anything can happen, because this body, as crazy as it is, any stupid idea can come through,” he said. “But it’s wrong for any legislator to ever do mandatory spending. That’s like putting a bullet to your head and pulling the trigger.”
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