Associated Press/New Orleans Times-Picayune

Senate approves bill that will spend $900 m/year on national parks, public lands, without amendment increasing Gulf Coast restoration funding

Associated Press and Staff Report

WASHINGTON — The Senate has approved a bipartisan bill that would spend nearly $3 billion from Gulf offshore oil revenue on conservation projects, outdoor recreation and maintenance of national parks and other public lands, a measure supporters say would be the most significant conservation legislation enacted in nearly half a century.

But the bill did not include an amendment proposed by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., that would have increased the share of offshore revenue going to Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states, and would have for the first time allowed Alaska to share part of the energy revenue generated off its coast.

Bill spending Gulf oil revenue on national parks must devote money to coastal restoration, protection: Sen Cassidy, state

The 73-25 vote on Wednesday sends the Great American Outdoors Act to the House, where approval is expected. The bill would spend about $900 million a year — double current spending — on the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund, and another $1.9 billion per year on improvements at national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and rangelands.

"Public lands hold a unique place in the life of every state in America — from their natural beauty to their use for recreation to their pivotal roles in local economies,'' said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnnell, R-Ky., who urged the House to pass it quickly.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., one of the bill’s chief sponsors, said the bill will create at least 100,000 jobs, while restoring national parks and repairing trails and forest systems. Sen. Steven Daines, R-Mont., who has pushed for the bill with Gardner, said it "will help protect public access to our public lands and supports our national parks. It preserves and protects our Montana outdoor way of life.''

Gardner and Daines are among the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents, and each represents a state where the outdoor economy and tourism at sites such as Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone national parks play an outsize role.

The lawmakers persuaded President Donald Trump to support the bill at a White House meeting this year, even though Trump repeatedly tried to slash spending for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund in his budget proposals. Trump has tweeted in favor of the lands bill, saying it "will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.''

The bill's opponents, mostly Republicans, sounded a similar note as they complained that it would not eliminate an estimated $20 billion maintenance backlog on 640 million acres of federally owned lands. The bill authorizes $9.5 billion for maintenance over five years.

“The problem is, in the sixth year we’ll still have a maintenance backlog,'' said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. ”We’ll still have issues, and there’s still not a plan to pay for" the remaining work.

The conservation fund is paid for by revenue from offshore drilling for oil and gas, and that has led to complaints by some Gulf Coast senators that inland states receive an unfair share. Cassidy's amendment would have eliminated the existing cap on offshore revenue that Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas can receive from wells developed in the gulf since 2007. 

Louisiana uses its share of the money to pay for hurricane protection and coastal restoration projects. Cassidy and others argue that the Gulf states should receive the same 50% of oil revenue from wells off their coasts that inland states receive from oil and gas produced on federal lands within their borders, arguing that the coastal states provide key support services to the offshore oil industry, and the oil and gas is routed across their coastlines before entering national commerce. 

At a Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority meeting on Wednesday at about the same time the bill was approved, CPRA chairman Chip Kline said he expects the House to also approve the bill without allowing an amendment like Cassidy's to be added, because of the threat that Trump would veto the final legislation. 

However, Kline said that on Tuesday night, Gov. John Bel Edwards discussed with Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, the introduction of separate legislation that would amend GOMESA to remove the funding cap, and that he and Richmond will meet next week with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about scheduling a vote on the bill.

Cassidy and Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., were among 25 senators, all Republicans, who opposed the bill. Twenty-eight Republicans supported it, along with 43 Democrats and two independents who caucus with Democrats. Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state and Ed Markey of Massachusetts missed the vote.

In addition to Louisiana's two senators, five other Republican senators from states receiving GOMESA money and supporting the cap amendment voted against the bill, including Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, and Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas. 

Sens. Doug Jones, D-Ala., and Roger Wicker of Mississippi voted for the bill, as did Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, both Republicans. Murkowski had given a speech on the Senate floor in favor of Cassidy's amendment.