Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Congress Hands Bush First Veto Override, But Funding the Water Bill Is Another Battle

New Orleans City Business reported yesterday that even though both houses of Congress voted last week to override President Bush’s veto of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA)—the first veto override of Bush’s presidency—celebration is premature.

Rep. Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge, told City Business that WRDA could exert a $77-billion impact on the Louisiana economy while preserving the eroding coastline.

But Mark Davis, director of Tulane University’s Institute on Water Resources Law, said the bill authorizes projects, but appropriates no money to begin construction.

“There’s a lot of critical stuff here but as valuable as many of these projects are, they carry with them no cash,” Davis said. “You can’t accuse Congress of being fiscally irresponsible for passing bills that don’t carry with them a nickel of expenditure. Passing this bill is like you’re qualifying for a race; it doesn’t mean you’re winning the race. This is a license to beg.”

Mark Ford, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, said WRDA includes $1.9 billion in vital coastal restoration projects but it could take more than 10 years for any projects to be funded. Some may never receive any money.

“Occasionally we get projects authorized, and decades pass and they don’t get appropriated,” Ford said. “Everglades restoration was authorized in 2000 and there’s been no money appropriated to help with that project. All the money that has gone into restoration of the Everglades has been put up by the state of Florida. That’s what we’re worried about. We just hope we get some of the more important things like coastal restoration so we can get some meaningful work done in Louisiana in the near term, which realistically is five to 10 years.”

Baker said WRDA has gone six years without being passed largely because Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., put a hold on it every time. Baker said Lott cited as his reason an unfulfilled agreement with Louisiana to divert freshwater from the Mississippi River through Lake Pontchartrain and into the Gulf of Mexico to reduce salinity levels along the Mississippi coast.

Once Baker included language in the bill addressing Lott’s concerns, the Mississippi senator cleared the way for WRDA’s passage. Baker said it is unusual for him to break with Bush but WRDA was too important to Louisiana.

Davis said passing WRDA was essential, but the fact it has taken seven years and four congressional votes to secure passage does not speak well of the system. “This should not be celebrated as a victory, and it should not be taken as proof that the system works,” Davis said.

“To take seven years to come up with a bloated, vetoed water bill that depends on an override vote is not the kind of good news people should be celebrating. I think this was a critically important thing to pass but we need to recognize that this WRDA is just as important for teaching us the limits of what this system can deliver right now.”

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