Capitol Comment 230 – Senate Bill 819: The Everglades Entitlement Act
On April 15, Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL) introduced the “National Parks Preservation Act” (S. 819). This legislation calls for substantial funding for national parks throughout the United States. However, S. 819 has major funding inequities, mandates billions of new spending, and might better be called the Everglades Entitlement Act.
The Birth of an Entitlement. S. 819 would take $500 million per year for 15 years from the revenue generated by federal oil and natural gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) and redirect the money into a fund for preservation of national parks. The fund would be controlled by the Department of the Interior (DOI). Currently, most of the roughly $6 billion in OCS revenues are deposited into the federal government’s general budget account and used for everything from education programs to national defense.
S. 819 mandates that $150 million a year from the new fund be spent exclusively on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Re-Study, an Everglades restoration and public works project. The remaining $350 million would be used for 370 facilities within the National Park System.1 Over 15 years, the bill would spend $2.25 billion on the Re-Study, just over half the expected federal share of the project.
What is the Re-Study? The Re-Study is a project designed to revamp the Central and Southern Florida Project (C&SF), first authorized by Congress in 1948. The C&SF now delivers flood protection and fresh water to nearly six million South Floridians in a 16-county region. However, the C&SF also caused extensive damage to the unique environment of South Florida and the Everglades. In response, Congress called for a study of possible changes to the C&SF in 1992 and again in 1996.
The authors of the Re-Study — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) — claim that the Re-Study project can restore the Everglades while at the same time providing fresh water for a growing South Florida population. However, serious concerns from all sides have been raised about the plan’s lack of focus, its lack of environmental restoration, its potential for threatening the water supply of South Floridians, and its open-ended cost.
Cash Into Chaos. The Corps estimates the cost of the Re-Study at $7.8 billion, split 50-50 between the federal government and the state of Florida. But this is only the beginning — the real cost is likely to top $11 billion.2 According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), restoration efforts lack “a strategic plan that clearly lays out how the initiative will be accomplished,” and “additional delays and cost overruns are likely to occur. …”3 S. 819 seems intended only to keep cash flowing into the chaos.
A New Entitlement Program. Perhaps the biggest danger of S. 819 is the fact that it creates what is, by any definition, a new entitlement program. The key part of the bill states that the $500 million per year is to be given to DOI “without further Act of appropriation” for the next 15 years.4 At a time when Congress is struggling to stay within the caps of the 1997 balanced budget agreement, it makes little sense to create a new $7.5 billion entitlement. Funding for national parks may be important, but Congress should not tie its hands for the next 15 years.
Inequitable Distribution. While S. 819 calls itself the “National” Park Preservation Act, it proposes an inequitable distribution of OCS money. The Re-Study gets a full 30 percent of all revenues, while the 370 National Park facilities located in states throughout the nation will have to make do with the remaining $350 million. Moreover, since S. 819 requires no “further Act of appropriation,” this inequitable formula is locked in for 15 years. Everglades restoration is a concern for many Americans, but priorities in National Park funding may change in the next 15 years. Congress must maintain financial flexibility by insisting that OCS funds go through the annual appropriations process.
A More Sensible Approach. There are many uncertainties surrounding the Re-Study, and the Corps makes no guarantees that the project will succeed. In fact, the Corps has admitted that the Re-Study does not even have a focus:
“The Restudy, to date, has no set direction; the details will come in time.”5
The Re-Study also relies heavily on new, untested methods of water storage to supply South Florida’s families with the water they need every day. A series of pilot projects are planned to determine if these new methods will work. However, these pilot projects will not be completed until 2011, and if any of the projects do not work as hoped, the whole Re-Study may have to be dramatically changed. Congress should not lock itself into over $2 billion in spending on the Re-Study without having some assurances that the plan will actually work.
At a time when Congress is trying to maintain fiscal discipline and restrain the upward spiral of government spending, a new $7.5 billion entitlement program is not a wise policy choice.
1S. 819, Sec. 2., (c), (3), (B); “Bill Would Aid Everglades Restoration,” Press Journal (Vero Beach), 4/21/99.
2″South Florida Ecosystem Restoration,” U.S. General Accounting Office, 4/99.
4S. 819, Sec. 2., (a), (3), (c).
5U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “Final Integrated Feasibility Report and Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement,” April 7, 1999, @ O, p. 1.