House to vote again on funds for controversial Ky. water project

For the second week in a row, the House will consider legislation aimed at boosting federal funding for a water project along the Kentucky and Illinois border.

Last week, the House and Senate approved a debt-ceiling bill that authorizes up to $2.9 billion for the Olmsted Locks and Dam Project on the lower Ohio River. That's a $1.2 billion increase above the project's current authorization level, a bump that prompted some to criticize it as a "Kentucky kickback" for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

This week, the House will take up legislation that would increase the extent to which taxpayers pick up the cost of the project.

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Under current law, water projects around the country are paid for through a 50-50 split between taxpayers and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. That fund is similar to the gasoline tax for automobiles — a fuel tax is assessed on inland waterways users, and the money is used to maintain and repair those waterways.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act, H.R. 3080, includes language in Section 216 that would require taxpayers to shoulder 75 percent of the costs for the Olmsted Project, instead of 50 percent. Under the bill, the trust fund would pay for the other 25 percent.

That bill could get a final House vote as early as Wednesday. If Section 216 remains intact, taxpayers will pay for $900 million of the additional $1.2 billion authorization, and the trust fund would pick up the remaining $300 million.

Supporters of the project say it is needed to maintain a critical Midwest waterway. They also say more taxpayer help is needed because the project was taking up the lion's share of the waterways trust fund, which was leaving few resources for other waterway projects.

A bill passed by the Senate back in May goes even further, by eliminating any responsibility the trust fund has in paying for the project. The Senate bill — S. 601, which passed 83-14 — would require all funding to come from the general Treasury.

A Senate aide said a House-Senate conference would likely have to negotiate the exact percentage of costs picked up by taxpayers and by the trust fund, assuming the House proposes something different from the Senate.

The House bill also includes language in a separate section boosting total authorization for the project to $2.3 billion. That number reflects a desire on the part of Republicans to maintain some spending control over the project.

However, some expect that language to be jettisoned before final passage in the House, because Congress has already boosted the level to $2.9 billion.

The increased authorization that Congress approved last week as part of the debt-ceiling bill was seen by some as a gift to McConnell, as the Olmsted Project affects his home state's northern border. But Republicans and Democrats have both called for this funding increase, as the project was already bumping up against its $1.7 billion spending cap.

President Obama proposed an increase in his 2014 budget, and last week, Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the top Republican on the relevant Senate Appropriations subcommittee, said millions of dollars would go to waste without an immediate increase in appropriations.

"According to the Army Corps of Engineers, 160 million taxpayer dollars will be wasted because of canceled contracts if this language is not included," he said last week.

"Senator [Dianne] Feinstein [(D-Calif.)] and I, as chairman and ranking member of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, requested this provision," he said. "It has already been approved this year by the House and Senate."

Supporters also say that the decision to put the authorization language in the debt ceiling bill was made only because of timing considerations. Funding in the project was expected to run out sometime around November 1.

But opponents say the two bills together will put a much bigger burden on taxpayers for a project whose size continues to grow.

"For years this industry has said that this critical project was the most important in the country," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"But instead of putting their money where their mouth is, navigation industry boosters are trying to take the taxpayer's money instead so they can spend it on other boondoggle projects."

— This story was updated at 6:08 p.m.