Senate panel moves to renew expired park conservation fund

Senate panel moves to renew expired park conservation fund
© Greg Nash

A Senate committee voted Tuesday to revive a popular funding mechanism for parks and conservation, days after its legal authority expired.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in a 16-7 vote approved a bill to indefinitely renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), setting the legislation up for a potential vote in the full Senate.

The fund has strong bipartisan support and has put billions of dollars into federal, state, local and even private parks and other places over the last 53 years.

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Under the bill sponsored by Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellZuckerberg to meet with lawmakers to discuss 'future internet regulation' Will Congress act to stop robocalls? Native American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment MORE (Wash.), the committee’s top Democrat, 1.5 percent of the fund's payouts must help improve access to lands for recreation.

Cantwell said the LWCF “has pumped billions of dollars into the outdoor economy and has provided for millions of good jobs."

“Protecting our public lands is good for the environment, it’s good for the economy and it’s good for the health and welfare of our people,” she said.

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund is one of the most important programs we have. I believe it is the crown jewel of our conservation programs,” said Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott Gardner The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Bolton returns to political group after exiting administration The Hill's Morning Report — Trump's hurricane forecast controversy won't go away MORE (R-Colo.).

The panel rejected a series of amendments from Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeHillicon Valley: Election security looms over funding talks | Antitrust enforcers in turf war | Facebook details new oversight board | Apple fights EU tax bill Antitrust enforcers in turf war over Big Tech Exclusive: Kushner tells GOP it needs to unify behind immigration plan MORE (R-Utah) to put restrictions on the program, like renewing it for only 10 years and requiring that it spend more money on public lands maintenance than on the government buying new land.

The House will have to take action before any legislation can be sent to the White House, and there are important differences between the bill moving through the Senate and legislation in the House.

The House Natural Resources Committee passed a bipartisan bill last month to indefinitely renew the LWCF, the result of a rare deal between Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopHere are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Overnight Energy: House moves to block Trump drilling | House GOP rolls out proposal to counter offshore drilling ban | calls mount for NOAA probe House GOP rolls out energy proposal to counter Democrats offshore drilling ban MORE (R-Utah) and ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

That bill would require at least 40 percent of the funds to go to states and 40 percent to the federal government.

Another key difference is that the Senate bill would turn the LWCF into a mandatory program, making its revenue — up to $900 million a year — exempt from the annual appropriations process.

Bishop has vehemently fought efforts to make it mandatory, as have numerous other Republicans in both chambers. That factor caused Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSinema touts bipartisan record as Arizona Democrats plan censure vote Kavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw McConnell lashes out at Democrats over 'unhinged' criticism of Kavanaugh MORE (R-Alaska), the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to oppose the legislation, even though she supports permanently authorizing the LWCF.

Because Congress has not renewed the LWCF, it can no longer collect revenue from offshore oil and natural gas drilling. That money goes into the general federal treasury instead.

The LWCF still has billions of dollars in its coffers, which it can use to fund parks and conservation.

The Senate committee also passed Tuesday, by a vote of 19 to 4, a bill to create a new fund that could pump billions of dollars into the National Park Service.

The Restore Our Parks Act would take half of the money the federal government gets from energy production offshore and on federal land and that hasn’t been dedicated to another purposes and put it toward the Park Service’s nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog.

The idea has the backing of Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInterior gains new watchdog The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks BLM issues final plan for reduced Utah monument MORE.

“To me, it’s about good stewardship,” said Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanCost for last three government shutdowns estimated at billion The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation MORE (R-Ohio), who introduced the bill with Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenate Democrats introduce legislation to limit foreign interference in elections Navy acknowledges footage of 'unidentified' flying objects California Law to rebuild middle class shows need for congressional action MORE (D-Va.).

“And it’s about saving federal tax dollars over the long term, with predictable funding for capital expenditures.”

The House Natural Resources Committee passed its version of the legislation last month. That bill is similar, but it would let the money go to maintenance at the Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Education.

Updated at 12:21 p.m.