It’s the House versus the Senate. While that’s not a new Washington occurrence these days, this time it has a lot of impact on boating.
In the past, the federal highway bill, which always includes our Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, has been a non-partisan bill primarily to create highway construction jobs. This time, however, it’s been center stage in a prolonged standoff between chambers in the ongoing fight over spending.
According to Larry Innis, MRAA’s Washington lobbyist, a two-year $109 billion bill has passed the Senate with 74 votes, thus making it non-partisan. The good news is it contains full funding for our Sport Fish/Boating Trust Fund. The bad news is the House is refuses to take up the Senate bill and now says it will pass only a short term extension.
“This was what we expected,” noted Innis. “But, now the Senate leadership is saying it will not take up any short term extension the House may send over. The current funding is set to expire on March 31 without, at least, a short term extension,” he explained.
In reality, highway funding (including our Sport Fish/Boating Trust Fund) has been unaffected since 2009 when he last highway bill expired. Since then, Congress has passed a total of 8 short-term extensions to the highway funding. Each of those extensions resulted in continued full funding for the Sport Fish/Boating Trust Fund. And, you’ll love this: Leaders in both chambers have long said they do not want to pass another short-term extension. Right!
If this all sounds familiar, it should. It brings to mind last year’s battle over funding for the FAA. In that one, the Senate also had passed a funding bill that the House refused to take up. Instead, the House passed a short-term extension and, you guessed it, the Senate refused to take it up. It actually resulted in the FAA being shut down for a couple of weeks.
At least for now (anything can happen, of course) our Sport Fish/Boating Trust doesn’t appear to be a sticking point in either chamber. Rather, the hot button is the House Republican leadership’s proposal to use revenues from the approval of new drilling permits on public lands to make up for diminishing revenues from the federal gas tax that normally funds the highway bill. The administration generally opposes more drilling on public lands and Democrats are also opposing a proposed cut in funding for a special mass transit account that gets a dedicated 2.86 cents of the federal gas tax.
Not surprisingly, in his weekly address President Obama called on Congress to end the showdown and pass the Senate version. He urged voters to “pressure” Democrats and Republicans to pass a long-term bill.
For boating, funding of the Sport Fish/Boating Trust Fund generates a wide variety of excellent programs ranging from boating safety to boating infrastructure grants. Among other revenue sources, it is a direct return of federal highway gas tax paid by boaters for their off-highway consumption. Quite correctly, the boating and fishing industries have always been active in both advocating and protecting this important funding. And as long as any highway bill is being batted around in Congress, all of us in boating must maintain a constant watch on everything concerning this funding source. Until we ever get a long-term funding bill, anything can happen and it seems likely something will this week.