Should the federal government be in the business of accruing more land? Should it be spending taxpayer money on local projects such as golf courses and baseball fields?
Even if Washington officials weren't running huge deficits, such expenses would be hard to justify. That's why lawmakers shouldn't reauthorize the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which is set to expire at the end of this month.
Enacted in 1965, the LWCF was intended to assist in expanding and preserving Americans' access to outdoor recreation, using federal revenues collected from offshore oil and gas. In its current state, the fund serves two primary functions: to enable federal land acquisition, and to give money to state and local governments for local projects.
Which makes the LWCF very popular. Even though states receive a small percentage of the fund's grants, that funding packs a hefty political punch. Sprinkle enough of other people's money around, and everyone's happy.
For example, last fall the Interior Department announced $13.3 million in new conservation fund spending for 22 projects, including $450,000 for two soccer fields in Missouri and $306,447 that paid for more than half of a new splash-pad and park in Delaware.
When the park in Delaware opened, a local newspaper highlighted how the local elected official benefits: "Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki kicked off this morning's celebration with an enthusiastic thumbs up for the new playground. 'When I got here this morning, I said to myself, this is the greatest little park I have ever seen. This is remarkable!'"
Support a popular project. Get other people to pay for a large chunk of it. Get your name in the paper. Get re-elected. It's the electoral equivalent of "lather, rinse, repeat."
The problem, mind you, isn't the actual projects, but who pays for them. As someone who played soccer at the community fields and spent summers at the community pool in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, I fully enjoyed the benefits of such amenities.
However, taxpayers in Louisiana shouldn't subsidize a golf course in Iowa, a boat ramp in Minnesota or a soccer field in Missouri. If these projects have value and communities want them, the people who live there should pay for them. A municipal tax increase, usage fees and private donations, for instance, could finance a new swimming pool.
In contrast, the LWCF disperses the cost among federal taxpayers and concentrates the benefits to the projects that receive grants. When the financing of these projects isn't tethered to the communities that derive the most value from them, it is much easier to frivolously spend money, rather than properly assessing if the project is worth the cost.
A quote from one conservation fund advocate sums up the incentive structure quite well: "Any talk of raising local taxes is met with pushback. The beauty of this (law) is, it gets funds to communities they otherwise wouldn't receive. The diversity of the projects funded touches everybody."
The LWCF robs offshore royalty revenues that could otherwise go to pay down our $21 trillion national debt tab or be allocated to the Gulf Coast states where offshore oil and gas production occurs. Currently, states receive 50 percent of the revenues generated by onshore oil and natural-gas production on federal lands. Gulf States receive only 37.5 percent, with 12.5 percent going to the LWCF.
The House Natural Resources Committee recently approved legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) that gives coastal states half the revenues from certain wells in the Gulf. Drilling off states' coasts and allowing them a larger share of the royalty revenue would encourage more state involvement in decisions to explore for and produce energy.
Another concern of permanent reauthorization is that it would allow the federal government to acquire more lands in perpetuity. The federal government already owns nearly one-third of the land in the U.S.
A maintenance backlog of $13.5 billion to $20 billion exists for all this land – a deficit leading to environmental degradation and lost economic opportunity.
Acquiring more lands means resources are only spread thinner to address issues such as soil erosion, infrastructure needs, forest management, trail maintenance and other public lands challenges. Congress shouldn't provide avenues to expand the federal estate without addressing the conservation and management challenges the government has on existing lands.
Just because a program is popular doesn't mean it's a good idea. To protect against more land grabs, and limit the scope of federal funding for local projects, Congress should permanently sunset the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
This piece originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee