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COVID-19 environmental pork

After more than $3 trillion in funding to restart the economy suffering from the coronavirus shutdown, Democrats are now seeking another $3 trillion package for state and local governments and direct payments to Americans. Not surprisingly mayors, councilmen and governors are vying for a place at the trough.

The proposed funding is touted as a way of helping state and local governments cope with the red ink expected to hemorrhage from the pandemic. Wearing her COVID-19 mask on April 30, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for $500 billion for states based on figures from the National Governors Association and another $500 billion sought by counties and municipalities. “We’re not going to be able to cover all of it, but to the extent that we can keep the states and localities sustainable, that’s our goal,” she said.

Though Pelosi said the funding “is strictly about the coronavirus” and is to cover “outlays that are for the virus,” local politicians are stretching the bounds of what constitutes coronavirus-related projects.

For example, consider they are stretching the purpose of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), established by Congress in 1965 to acquire land and water for conservation and recreational purposes. A letter from 112 elected officials across the West explains that “Great parks and green spaces — at the local, state and national levels — make for stronger, healthier communities.” Similarly, Wyoming officials argue that “Our national, state and local parks, trails and public lands are a critical economic driver for communities big and small, urban and rural, across the nation. Across the west, the travel and tourism industries have been taking a hit in the current crisis.”

These politicians are urging Congress to authorize spending $900 million on LWCF projects. If it does authorize $900 million, 50 percent would go to federal land acquisition, 40 percent to state outdoor recreation projects and 10 percent to “other purposes.” Although a case might be made that land acquisitions and state outdoor recreation projects stimulate the economy and produce long-term benefits in much the same way that President Obama’s “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects did for the 2008-2009 recession, such expenditures would be totally unrelated to the coronavirus. Moreover, given that federal land management bleeds red ink, land acquisitions will simply add to burgeoning deficits created by the stimulus packages.

The other 40 percent of LWCF spending since 1965 has gone to states for fish and wildlife management, state parks and local recreation projects such as trails, swimming pools, baseball fields and tennis courts.

For years, environmental groups have tried unsuccessfully to get Congress to allocate more funding to the LWCF but, now, COVID-19 provides a veil to diffuse the costs of local projects to U.S. taxpayers.

Climate activists tried to use the same tactics as their “Trojan horse” with the initial CARES Act. For example, they wanted the airlines industry to fully offset greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and to require banks receiving support from the package to stop funding fossil fuel projects. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appears to see through these thinly veiled connections to COVID-19: “What I want to make very clear to them [local governments], is that if there is another rescue package, it must include and will include liability protections related narrowly to the coronavirus pandemic.”  

He made it clear that Republicans are not interested in borrowing from future generations to bail out states for “bad decisions they’ve made in the past unrelated to the coronavirus.”

State and local politicians and environmentalists will argue that another $900 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the COVID-19 funding and that it will pay conservation dividends long into the future. If so, such expenditures don’t need to hide behind the curtain of this coronavirus pandemic. Let’s face it — conservation pork is still pork. 

Terry Anderson is the John and Jean DeNault Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and past president of the Property and Environment Research Center, Bozeman, Mont.

Tags Coronavirus coronavirus shutdown COVID-19 COVID19 Democrats environmental organizations Land and Water Conservation Fund LWCF Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Pork barrel spending Republicans Stimulus Package taxpayers

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