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Times-Picayune - Gulf Coast Lawmakers Optimistic About Garnering 80% of BP Oil Spill Fines

News Article

Location: Washington, DC

By Bruce Alpert

Despite support from President Barack Obama and influential congressional Republicans, a bill that would channel 80 percent of BP oil spill fines to the Gulf Coast is far from enactment.

Louisiana lawmakers remain upbeat, pointing to the bipartisan support for the legislation, approval by a key Senate committee and a scheduled Dec. 7 hearing on the bill in a House panel. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said the decision by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., to hold the hearing next month is a good sign, especially at a time when committees are busy handling legislation in a final push before the end of the year. This gives him and other supporters a chance to move the bill through the House early in 2012, before the growing focus on next November's presidential and congressional elections is likely to stall the legislative calendar to a virtual standstill.

"It is only proper that the Gulf Coast states that were impacted should receive the lion's share of the fines BP will have to pay as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster," Scalise said.

Under the legislation, known as the RESTORE Act, 80 percent of any fines imposed under the Clean Water Act would go to a Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund.

Thirty-five percent of the funds would be distributed equally to the five affected states for economic and ecological recovery, 30 percent for development and implementation of comprehensive restoration plans and 30 percent in impact driven funds targeted to the states with the most damage, which would benefit Louisiana most.

Five percent would go for a research, science and technology program to boost Gulf fisheries.

Overall, Louisiana is likely to get about half of the available funds, which are could range from $5 billion to $20 billion, depending on whether BP and other companies connected to the spill are ground grossly negligent or merely negligent.

Despite the bipartisan support for the bill, there are holdouts. When Scalise introduced his bill he brought on key members, mostly Republicans, from the five Gulf States, but he didn't get an endorsement from his co-chair of the Gulf Coast caucus, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla.

In the Senate, nine of the 10 Gulf Coast senators have signed on, but not Sen. Jon Cornyn, R-Texas.

Another obstacle to passage may be the $1.2 billion cost estimate by the Congressional Budget Office. Since the money from the fines would normally flow into the federal treasury, the loss of that money would be counted as a cost to the federal government.

With "pay-as-you-go" rules those costs would have to be offset with either cuts in federal spending or tax increases -- an effort that will be more challenging because the Super Committee now working on a deficit reduction package is likely to target a host of spending cuts -- taking away many cost-cutting options for backers of the RESTORE Act.

The Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group based in New Orleans, launched a campaign Wednesday to persuade Congress to pass the legislation. In a letter to supporters, Aaron Viles, the group's deputy director, said the bill is critical.

"If Congress does not act now, these fines (between 5 billion and 20 billion dollars) will end up in the black hole of the federal treasury," Viles wrote. "It's only fair that BP's money be used to clean up the mess they created."

But getting legislation through the 112th Congress has been difficult. So far, only 46 bills have been sent by the House and the Senate to Obama for his signature, many of them routine.

The best hope for the legislation might be getting it added as an amendment to a "must pass bill," though that, too, would need strong support from Democrats and Republicans.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said she remains optimistic.

"The bill has the support of a broad, bipartisan coalition of members in both the House and Senate, which makes it unique in the current political climate in Washington," said Rob Sawicki, a Landrieu spokesman.

A lobbyist working on the bill said that other committees have sought some input on the bill, angry that the measure was voted directly to the Senate floor by the Environment and Public Works Committee where Chairwoman Barbara Boxer personally sat down for negotiations that brought consensus from nine of the 10 Gulf State senators. That could generate some resentment as supporters try to move the package forward.

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