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Published March 24, 2014, 09:55 AM

Waterway bill could be finished in May

WASHINGTON — Congress is likely to finish the Water Resources Development Act as early as May, but a proposed increase in user fees to raise money for construction and improvements has become caught up in congressional differences over tax legislation, Mike Tooey, the president of Waterways Council Inc., said March 18.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Congress is likely to finish the Water Resources Development Act as early as May, but a proposed increase in user fees to raise money for construction and improvements has become caught up in congressional differences over tax legislation, Mike Tooey, the president of Waterways Council Inc., said March 18.

The House and Senate have passed the bill and it is now in a conference between the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Farm leaders consider enactment of WRDA and an increase in user fees key to modernization of the locks and dams on the Mississippi that are vital to the shipment of farm commodities. The farm leaders joined with the tugboat, towboat and barge operators who make up the Waterways Council to push the legislation in the past year.

When farm, business and union leaders walk the halls of Congress together in a display of unity “you’ve got something going on,” Tooey said. He noted that a year ago, they were still waiting for congressional committees and the House and Senate to act on the initial legislation.

Conferees are likely to finish the conference report and send it to the floor of each body once the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sends Congress a report on a western water project on April 30, Tooey said.

But he added that a proposal to increase the user fee per gallon of diesel from 6 to 9 cents was not included in WRDA, even though it has been included in previous reauthorizations of the bill.

The user fee goes through the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., has included it in his comprehensive tax reform proposal, Tooey noted, but that bill is not expected to receive serious consideration in this Congress.

Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., could include it in the tax extenders bill he is planning to move this year, Tooey said, and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., a member of Senate finance, has presented it as a “key issue” to Wyden. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., is also a supporter, he said.

Extend, not increase

There could be an argument over whether the user fee is “germane” to the tax extenders bill, Tooey said, because that bill is supposed to extend current laws, not ask for increases. But he also noted that the user fee is a “revenue measure, so it is germane to the discussion.

“We will win this issue sooner or later,” Tooey said, but he added that each year the user fee is not increased there is a loss of $50 million to $76 million in revenue that could be used for modernization of the waterways system.

Conferees and staff have been unwilling to say how the committee will resolve issues such as what percentage of funding for projects will come from the user fee account and what percentage from the government.

The waterways system is vital to U.S. agricultural competitiveness, Tooey said, noting that American farmers win the contracts for exporting soybeans because the cost of transportation by barge in the U.S. is so much cheaper than transportation from Brazil’s interior production area to the port by truck.

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