House lawmakers demand refund for shuttered parks

House lawmakers are reopening the fight over the Obama administration’s closing of national parks during the government shutdown. 

Arizona’s congressional delegation is pressing the administration to pay their state for expenses from reopening national parks during the 16-day government shutdown.

Separately, Rep. Chris StewartChristopher (Chris) Douglas StewartGOP lawmaker: Trump could reverse policy of separating families if he wanted to Utah’s leaders try to control Endangered Species Act, take lazy way on traffic planning Koch-backed group to target some Republicans over spending vote in new ad campaign MORE (R-Utah) is pushing a bill aimed at ensuring national parks remain open in the event that the government someday closes down again.

Republicans blasted President Obama and the Interior Department for barricading the World War II Memorial and other national park sites during the shutdown, arguing it was unnecessary.

“The president realizes those are pressure points for people,” Stewart said. “If you ask people what they remember most about the government shutdown, the most common answer is the World War II veterans at the memorial.” 

“It is one of those things that people react to and see.”

Relenting to pressure from governors, the administration agreed to let six states reopen their national parks during the shutdown: Arizona, Utah, Colorado, South Dakota, New York and Tennessee.

Now, lawmakers from Arizona want the Interior Department to “follow past practice and provide a full refund” to the state for the $465,000 that was spent to reopen Grand Canyon National Park.

“Past experience also suggests that the Park Service has existing authority to refund the State,” Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainDon’t disrespect McCain by torpedoing his clean National Defense Authorization Act Meghan McCain rips Trump's 'gross' line about her dad Trump's America fights back MORE (R-Ariz.) and Reps. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarOvernight Energy: Spending bill targets Pruitt | Ryan not paying 'close attention' to Pruitt controversies | Yellowstone park chief learned of dismissal through press release GOP offshore drilling proposal triggers debate Republican moves on Arizona coal plant show they don’t believe their own rhetoric MORE (R-Ariz.) wrote in a letter sent last week to National Park Service (NPS) Director Jonathan Jarvis.

“After the 1995 shutdown, the Park Service ultimately refunded the State for the full amount ($370,125) it advanced to operate the park,” they wrote.

Utah’s congressional delegation plans to send a similar letter to the NPS as early as this week asking that their state be repaid, a congressional source told The Hill.

But top Interior Department officials say Congress must authorize the back payments to states.

In 1995, the agency says, Arizona agreed to foot the bill to reopen Grand Canyon Village during the government shutdown. The federal government reopened before the funds were spent, so that money was returned.

This time around, the government did not reopen before Arizona’s “donation” to the park service was spent to operate the Grand Canyon.

A copy of the “donation agreement” obtained by The Hill makes clear that the money donated for the operation of national parks would only be returned if Congress failed to pass appropriations before they were used.

“If the United States Congress appropriates funds for the operation of the National Park System before the funds donated to the NPS by the State are fully obligated, then the NPS will refund to the State the unobligated balance of the State-donated funds,” the agreement states.

That’s where Stewart’s bill comes in.

The bill, set to be considered by the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday, would allow states to keep operations running during a shutdown at parks and other federal facilities, as well as to fund programs that directly affect tourism, mining, timber or transportation.

Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) has another bill that would require states to be repaid for expenses within 90 days after a shutdown ends. The House committee will consider it on Wednesday as well, and there is a companion bill in the Senate.

Daines’s office is optimistic that the bill would move forward soon but did not provide a timeline.

“I am deeply disappointed by the Obama administration’s decision to needlessly block the American people’s access to public lands and national monuments — whether it was barricading World War II veterans from visiting their memorial or denying Montana sportsmen access to unguarded trails through public lands,” Daines told The Hill.

House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate Race for Republican Speaker rare chance to unify party for election Scalise allies upset over Ryan blindside on McCarthy endorsement MORE (R-Va.) does not yet have plans to bring either bill to the floor, his office said.