Budget cuts bite into land purchases - Reports of poor fiscal management also take toll
WASHINGTON -- In Congress, even Republicans say the Cascades initiative is the kind of project that deserves funding.
The priority, a senior Republican aide said, is to provide money for projects that have bipartisan support and aim to consolidate in-holdings rather than expand boundaries.
The Cascades Conservation Partnership fits that description, basking in broad public support and the backing of such diverse politicians as Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
The Cascades Partnership "would be one of the chairman's higher priorities," said the aide, referring to Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee. That subcommittee is the critical gatekeeper in deciding how much money is available for land acquisition.
But positive words and gestures aren't enough to guarantee success, especially this year when budgets for land acquisition have been deeply cut.
Taylor's committee set aside only $100 million for federal land purchases in the next fiscal year, $87.1 million less than President Bush requested. It's also far less than the $313 million that will be spent in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
And, unlike other chairmen, Taylor does not "earmark" money for specific projects, meaning the competition for the scarce dollars is all the more intense and unpredictable. Instead, those decisions will be made by a small and select number of House and Senate negotiators who smooth out differences between a bill passed by the House and one by the Senate.
Democrats were fuming after the subcommittee approved the bill, promising a bruising fight this week when the full committee considers the Interior bill. Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., said the highest priority for Democrats would be increasing funding for land acquisition. "This is going to precipitate a fight that this committee is not going to enjoy," Obey said, referring to the $100 million for land purchases.
Darkening the picture even more, according to congressional aides, is that the Cascades Partnership is an "unintended victim" of recent events that have cast doubts on the fiscal management of federal land purchases. First was a series in The Washington Post that raised questions about the Nature Conservancy, a private group that often combines with state and federal agencies to buy land. The stories exposed potential conflicts of interest in how the Conservancy selects some properties.
The other, potentially more serious, development is a report by the Department of Interior inspector general due this week that is expected to be scathing in its conclusions about how land is appraised. The conclusion, according to an official who has knowledge of an early version, is that the government pays too much for some property.
Even so, both Republican and Democratic aides predict the Cascades Partnership will earn some federal money next year, although nobody expects funding to come close to the $8 million requested.
P-I Washington correspondent Charles Pope can be reached at 202-263-6461 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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