After the Cliff
With the dawn of each new year, there is always hope for a brighter future. The same is true in Washington, where each new Congress brings with it fresh hopes of a productive session. Thanks to hard-line partisans and a generally unproductive 112th Congress, the future can only be brighter, as elected officials would be hard pressed to compromise any less than they have over the past two years. The 113th Congress offers both new opportunities and potential pitfalls for park and recreation priorities. Taking advantage of these opportunities will require tremendous advocacy efforts, but, with the strong participation of park and recreation advocates, anything is possible.
Where We Are
Understanding the current state of the budget is important before seeing how budget negotiations could affect park and recreation priorities. Although the new Congress begins in January 2013, the federal fiscal year began in October 2012. Not wanting to debate the budget before a presidential election, Congress passed a Continuing Resolution (CR)—a bill that funds the federal government and all its programs at similar levels to those already in place for a fixed period of time, usually less than a year. This CR keeps most programs funded at the same level as FY 2012 plus a small (0.0612 percent) increase. It will be in effect until March 2013.
The President and Congress also worked to avoid the “fiscal cliff.” In 2011, as part of a deal between Congress and the President, both branches agreed to a series of severe automatic spending cuts and revenue increases to take place in January 2013 if a way to cut the deficit was not found. At the 11th hour, Congress and the President came to a minor agreement about some cuts and a few possible revenue increases, while kicking the long-term deficit issue until March 2013, which they hope will give them time to hammer out a broader agreement.
While the “fiscal cliff” still represents a potential pitfall in the coming year, the following programs represent opportunities for the park and recreation community. The Land and Water Conservation Fund State Assistance Program represents an opportunity for increased funding. A new surface transportation bill that the 113th Congress is sure to take up represents an opportunity for trails advocacy. Finally, the No Child Left Inside Act and the Urban Revitalization and Livable Communities Act represent opportunities for greater environmental education and greener urban areas.
Land and Water Conservation Fund State Assistance Program
As the only federal program that provides funding dedicated to state and local parks and recreation, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) State Assistance Program is a key NRPA legislative priority. The LWCF is a fund that was established in 1965 and is paid for by the royalties received by the federal government by leasing land for offshore oil and gas development on the Outer Continental Shelf. Money from the fund is used for both a federal land acquisition program and a state assistance program. The state assistance program provides matching grants to states and local governments for the acquisition and development of public outdoor recreation areas and facilities. The goal of the program is to create high quality recreation program areas and facilities, while simultaneously encouraging local governments to invest in recreation resources across the country. The rationale behind the fund is that money made from permanently extracting federal resources should be reinvested into protecting natural resources within the country.
NRPA has three priorities regarding LWCF. The first is to have Congress enact authorizing legislation that protects the interest of states and local communities by ensuring 40 percent of the total funding provided to LWCF is allocated to the LWCF State Assistance Program on a yearly basis—the same amount currently required by law to be provided to the federal land acquisition program. Secondly, in absence of authorizing legislation, NRPA asks appropriators to exercise their discretionary power and allocate at least 40 percent of the total LWCF funding to the State Assistance Program through the annual appropriations process. Additionally, NRPA asks appropriators to oppose attempts to use LWCF State Assistance dollars for purposes other than originally intended, such as a Department of Interior-administered competitive grant program.
During the 112th Congress, the LWCF was almost funded for $700 million for two years, while being reauthorized until 2022. Unfortunately, that funding was taken out of the surface transportation bill, despite strong bi-partisan support from many members of Congress and much of the public. Under the FY 2012 allocation, $45 million was allocated to the state assistance program. Approximately this same amount is allocated under the current CR, which is in effect until March. NRPA will continue to fight for additional funding for the LWCF State Assistance Program.
One area that the 113th Congress is sure to address is that of surface transportation. The 112th Congress passed, and the President signed, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21). This bill provided transportation infrastructure funding for fiscal years 2013 and 2014, which means that the 113th Congress will be responsible for planning future funding. In addition to removing LWCF funding, one of the things that the MAP-21 bill did was to create a funding category called Transportation Alternatives that encompassed several popular programs including Transportation Enhancements (TE), Safe Routes to School, and the Recreational Trails Programs. MAP-21 allowed states to opt out of participating in the Recreational Trails Program, but still receive Transportation Alternatives funding.
The new surface transportation bill will offer opportunities to fix the flaws that were present in MAP-21. Planning and advocacy have already begun. The incoming House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), has already met with Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-WV) about next year’s committee agenda. Additionally, senior staff have been meeting, which bodes well for the passage of a bipartisan surface transportation bill. Additionally, in the Senate, trail supporters Merkley (D-OR) and Cardin (D-MD) remain in Congress.
Urban Parks Legislation
The Urban Revitalization and Livable Communities Act (H.R. 709) and its Senate counterpart, The Community Parks Revitalization Act (S. 3583), provide matching federal grants to revitalize urban areas through local park and recreation projects and programs. It was introduced in the House by Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) and in the Senate by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC). Funding is provided through a competitive grant process administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Types of grants include rehabilitation and construction grants, innovation grants, at-risk youth recreation grants, and recovery action program grants.
Data and studies have shown that investments in urban park and recreation infrastructure makes cities and metro areas more economically competitive by creating jobs and attracting the kinds of businesses and highly skilled workforces that will drive the 21st -century economy. Improved urban park systems also play a key role in addressing environmental concerns in a non-regulatory manner. Additionally, improved access to public park and recreation resources leads to increased physical activity and healthier communities. The reintroduction and eventual passage of urban park legislation in both the House and Senate remain key priorities for NRPA public policy staff in the 113th Congress.
No Child Left Inside
The No Child Left Inside Act (NCLI) would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). It would require states to create environmental literacy plans that include environmental education standards and teacher training. The term “teacher training” encompasses funding for training to teach high-quality environmental education as well as training to use the local environment as a part of the learning process. States would have to fulfill these commitments to receive implementation grants. The legislation emphasizes a “hands-on” experience to exploring the environment.
In the 112th Congress, NCLI was sponsored by Rep. Sarbanes (D-MD) in the House as H.R. 2547. In the Senate, its counterpart, S. 1372, was sponsored by Sen. Reed (D-RI). In the House it was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. In the Senate, it was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. As Rep. Sarbanes introduced it in the 111th Congress and the 112th Congress, he will probably reintroduce it in the 113th Congress. NRPA public policy staffers are working to include park and recreation agencies as eligible funding partners for all grants when the bill is reintroduced in the 113th Congress.
Tushar Gurjal of The Ferguson Group and the NRPA Public Policy team contributed to this article (email@example.com).