EDITORIAL: Politics in the budget mix for Georgia’s port

March 7, 2014 

“We are going to get this done, as my grandfather would say, come hell or high water.”

-- Vice President Joe Biden

The vice president was speaking about the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project that will deepen the channel to the Port of Savannah so it can accommodate larger vessels that will be coming into service soon. The Panama Canal is also being refitted to handle the larger Panamax vessels that can carry 14,500 20-foot containers as opposed to the present ships carrying 5,100. Georgia is seeking $391 million for the project -- 60 percent of its $652 million cost. The president’s budget only included a paltry $1.52 million to continue further study even though the project has been cleared for construction.

Georgia’s elected leaders have all gone ballistic. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson issued a joint statement saying, “We are deeply disappointed and frustrated. ... It is now clear they would rather pay lip-service to Georgians than deliver on their promises.” Gov. Nathan Deal said he would use state funds to begin construction of the project -- as long as it gets its money back. The White House issued a statement saying Congress had not reauthorized the Water Resources Development Act, and until that act is passed -- something that hasn’t happened in seven years -- the project can’t go forward.

There is a clear reason for the impasse: politics. The president’s administration wants the WRDA reauthorized and this is an opportunity to horse trade, but we think there’s more to the story. Georgia is a red state as is our neighbor South Carolina that is also seeking federal money for its port in Charleston. Both states have Republican governors who have refused to expand Medicaid and both states have also proposed legislation that would prevent their governors from deciding to accept the federal money without legislative approval. This, pardon the pun, is a shot across the bow. Unfortunately that’s how the political game is played. Politicians in both states should not be surprised.

Of course, Congress is the real captain of the budget ship. Our Washington, D.C., lawmakers should be able to make funding for the SHEP happen with or without the president. However, there will be a lot of horse trading in the process with every lawmaker on the Eastern Seaboard looking to cut a big chunk of pie, all the while delaying those states, like Georgia, that are well ahead of them in the harbor infrastructure game.

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