JUNE 29, 2001

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Although the House is said to be eager to pass Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA) legislation (HR 701), the Senate and the Bush administration are unknown quantities.

No bill has been introduced in the Senate and the Senate Energy Committee probably won't address the issue until fall because it is tied up with energy legislation. The Bush administration reportedly would as soon stick to a truncated version of the bill, known as CARA-lite, that the House approved last week as part of a fiscal year 2001 Interior Appropriations bill.

The bidding was opened June 20 when the House Resources Committee held a hearing on HR 701, whose chief sponsors are Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska), George Miller (D-Calif.) and Billy Tauzin (R-La.) Ominously for supporters, the Bush administration chose not to send a witness. "We had hoped Secretary (of Interior Gale) Norton would have had deputies in place by now," said committee chairman James Hansen, a supporter of HR 701. "Secretary Norton herself is traveling, but the administration will provide written testimony."

"That the administration was unable to provide someone to testify means that they don't like the bill," said Mike Hardiman, legislative director for the American Conservative Union and bill opponent. "But they don't want to openly disagree with Young and Tauzin. Hansen's excuse is lame."

A Republican Congressional staff member is hearing different signals from the administration. "On the one hand I'm hearing that CARA as CARA (new legislation such as HR 701) is dead. But I'm also hearing they are interested in some kind of conservation effort, perhaps built around their budget request."

That budget request recommended close to full funding for a stripped-down version of CARA known as CARA-lite that was enacted last year as part of a fiscal 2001 Interior appropriations bill. The budget request sought one major new change - to convert the state side of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to a block grant program.

The House in fact June 21 approved a fiscal 2002 Interior Appropriations bill that includes full funding of CARA-lite of $1.3 billion (another $300 million plus would come from a Department of Commerce money bill.) But the House rejected the administration's block grant plan.

Despite those caveats backers of the original CARA, which would put up $3 billion per year for 15 years, are eager and optimistic. Hansen put out a press release after the June 20 hearing titled, "House Expected to Pass CARA This Year Following Today's Full Committee Hearing on the Hill."

Seconded Robert McDowell, president of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, a major bill supporter, "The fact that more than half of the Representatives have signed on as cosponsors almost guarantees a big win for CARA in the House." McDowell is also director of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.

It helps that Young is chairman of the powerful House Transportation Committee and that Tauzin is chairman of the powerful House Energy Committee. In those positions they can bestow favors, such as highway money, on recalcitrant Republicans. Democrats are pretty solidly behind CARA.

Although 223 House members (a clear majority of a total of 435) are cosponsors of HR 701, no senator has introduced a counterpart bill. The situation in the Senate was muddied when the Democratic Party unexpectedly assumed the majority June 6. That removed CARA sponsor and booster Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) from chairmanship of the Senate Energy Committee. However, the new chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), has also been a major supporter of CARA.

Some bill opponents among private property rights groups believe Bingaman and new Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) will pursue CARA even more aggressively than did Murkowski and former majority leader Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.)

But Hardiman from the American Conservative Union is not so sure. "The Democrats may support CARA but they haven't given it as much support as Lott and Murkowski did. I think we have a net improvement." Hardiman said his side could also be helped by alleged antagonism toward CARA of new Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.)

Right now CARA is not on the radar screen of the Senate Energy Committee. "I anticipate we'll be tied up with energy legislation for most of the summer and won't be able to get to natural resources legislation for some time," said a Democratic staff member.

Besides, said another Senate committee staff member, "It's not like there is a ground swell of support. We're receiving as many letters against as for."

At the House hearing Jack-Caldwell, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, praised CARA-lite, but said the states need a full-blown CARA. "Those-of us who fought hard for CARA know what happened in the end was not CARA at all," said Caldwell. "The true essence of CARA is a steady, predicable stream of funding that would come directly to the states. This steady stream of funding makes it possible for states like Louisiana, with major environmental needs, to plan for and implement restoration efforts costing hundreds of millions of dollars."

The case against HR 701 was presented by Pat Callahan, president of the American Association of Small Property Owners. She was one of few witnesses to oppose the bill. "Land use involves tough issues, fought out on the local level," she said. "It is an exercise in democracy which can, at times become very contentious. The intervention of the federal government in land use matters, whether directly or through a funding mechanism, will allow ideologues to exercise undue influence in the process, and thereby disenfranchise local private property owners."

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