Today’s Courier Herald Column:
The yearend omnibus spending measure which passed Congress last week contained $588,000 to complete the permitting process for the Port of Savannah’s planned expansion. Georgia is in a race against time to get the harbor deepened to coincide with larger ships expected to arrive once the Panama Canal’s expansion is finished in 2014.
Georgia is also in a race against South Carolina and their port at Charleston, whose leaders have just recently realized they’ve been asleep at the switch regarding preparations for changes in the shipping industry.
While Georgia’s project has seen unprecedented cooperation between the Governor and Atlanta’s Mayor, the Congressional delegation has been a bit more circumspect. While both Senators and some Congressmen have been open boosters, others have objected to the way similar projects have been funded in the past. Often, large ticket projects such as port expansions have been funded through an earmark process. Republicans are currently observing a ban on such requests, and some have drawn a hard line on the possibility of any exceptions.
Republican Tom Graves, whose northwest Georgia district is the farthest from the port, was an early critic of the Port’s potential earmark saying “We’ve banned those, and there’ll be no more earmarks over the next two years. So that’s not even an option.” Graves has continued to work with the other members of the Georgia delegation on funding mechanisms outside the earmark process.
Nearly a year after the above comments, the 2012 budget process has yielded a new account for the Army Corps of Engineers to fund port expansions to the tune of $460 Million. Georgia is looking for somewhere between $300 and $400 Million to fund Savannah’s $600 Million price tag.
The funding of the Corps budget without specific attachments to individual ports should take some of the political pressure out of the expansion, where tensions have been heightened between Georgia’s and South Carolina’s Governors and Senators. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is taking heat for backing off South Carolina’s attempt to block Savannah’s permit request on environmental reasons, while Senator Lindsey Graham has threatened to shut down the entire Senate via procedural mechanisms if the Charleston port project wasn’t funded this year.
With the appropriations allocated but the decisions over which projects are funded and the timing of those projects returned to the Army Corps level, Senators Isakson, Chambliss, and Graham issued a joint statement Saturday indicating their satisfaction over the resolution to the process:
“With the significant spending cuts contained in this bill, Congress is finally taking a step in the right direction toward reining in Washington’s reckless spending spree. This bill also takes a new, commonsense approach toward funding of the critical harbor deepening projects at our nation’s ports now that earmarks are a thing of the past. The new funding method being created in this bill will help ensure taxpayers across America receive the best value for their hard-earned dollars.
“In President Obama’s FY 12 budget submission to Congress, the Savannah Port did not receive adequate funding and the Charleston Port was completely forgotten. This created an unfair situation to both states. Under the new provisions in this bill, no longer will our harbor deepening efforts be held hostage by the President’s budget submission to Congress.”
The statement recognizes as much as a truce with each other as it does with budget hard liners who are demanding no new spending increases in an era of trillion dollar budget deficits. By allocating part of the corps existing budget to port expansion, Congress has established a priority of how to spend existing budgeted funds without using the earmark process to tack on additional money for pet projects.
Given that Georgia is years ahead of Charleston in the permit process, it is likely that the Savannah project will receive funding before Charleston does. The specific appropriation for Savannah, while under $1 Million, signifies that the project has been recognized by the Corps, with permitting likely complete during 2012.
The projects are certain to face additional obstacles. While South Carolina officials were eager to use environmental objections to attempt to stop Savannah’s permitting, those arguments do not go away with political objections. Similar objections are likely to be raised to dredging Charleston’s harbor as well.
While the path ahead may not all be smooth sailing, the budget deal does represent a significant milestone for a deeper Port of Savannah. It also represents achieving a delicate balance between spending constraints and the need for additional investment in infrastructure.