WASHINGTON — U.S. Reps. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, and Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, sent a letter Wednesday criticizing the Senate Appropriations Committee for proposing to take $10.2 million out of the Gulf Coast recovery pool from the BP oil disaster.
The Senate committee recently approved a financial services spending bill that takes the money out of the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund primarily for a grant management program for directing the dollars and for U.S. Treasury auditing purposes.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., sits on the Senate committee and supported the bill. About half of the $10.2 million is for directing the trust fund’s grant dollars to local sources, according to her office, while the House version of the bill does not include a mechanism to distribute the funds to coastal communities properly.
The trust fund came from the RESTORE Act legislation — originally sponsored by Landrieu — signed into law last year that directs 80 percent of the Clean Water Act civil fines to the five Gulf of Mexico states affected by the disaster, an amount that could reach nearly $18 billion once the BP penalties are concluded.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 men, and resulted in a three-month discharge of 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.
Cassidy and Scalise argued against siphoning any of the trust fund’s dollars for federal bureaucratic purposes.
“The cuts to the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund undermine the RESTORE Act and harm Louisiana families and small businesses,” Cassidy said in announcing the letter.
“Coastal restoration projects are vital for maintaining industries relied upon by American consumers. Our ports and our energy resources create jobs and lower gas prices throughout the country. These industries, and the workers who support them, are threatened by coastal erosion.”
Cassidy is challenging Landrieu in her 2014 re-election bid.
“It is imperative that the RESTORE Act dollars are distributed as efficiently, transparently and quickly as possible to secure our coast,” Landrieu said in an email response. “We have one shot to get this right. This has always been a bipartisan bill. If my colleagues have any specific suggestions on how to implement the RESTORE Act more efficiently, I’m open to those ideas.”
Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana under Gov. Bobby Jindal, chimed in online that the Senate bill is “RESTORing bureaucracy.”
“The BP oil spill is the worst in our nation’s history and little has been done to actually address widespread damages,” Graves added in a prepared statement. “The federal government has already taken their cut — they have retained hundreds of millions of dollars in BP funds. This is a disaster in the Gulf, not a profit-making venture for the U.S. Treasury. We strongly urge the Senate to find another bill payer.”
Another issue for the Gulf Coast trust fund is that it is impacted by the ongoing federal sequester of across-the-board federal spending reductions.
The sequester, which began in March, is holding back, but not spending, 5 percent of the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund and that increases to 7.2 percent beginning Oct. 1 for the 2014 fiscal year. The federal government is estimating setting aside $23 million in the fund for the upcoming fiscal year.
The sequester cuts came as a compromise in 2011 when House Republicans forced a standoff over the federal debt ceiling in a fight that could have forced the federal government to default on its payments.
Sequestration — a White House idea approved by Congress — was set up as a poison pill to force compromise, which never came.