WASHINGTON — A bill requiring the National Park Service repay states for reopening public lands during the government shutdown passed the House Resources Committee Wednesday over objections the money was intended as a donation.
The measure is sponsored by Republican Rep. Steve Daines of Montana and cosponsored by Colorado Republican Reps. Scott Tipton and Doug Lamborn, and passed on a voice vote.
The park service agreed to open parks for ten days in Colorado, Arizona, South Dakota and New York after the states paid the federal agency nearly $3.5 million. The park service refused to reimburse the states afterwards, saying it would require an act of Congress.
“This bill is an attempt to help solve a problem that Washington, DC created, and that is in a shutdown, the inability for the states to step in and assure that our national parks can remain open at the state’s choice, helping when the federal government cannot do its job,” Daines said before the panel vote.
“The administration did everything that it could to make clear to the public that our parks and our public lands were not open for business,” Daines said.
“Shouldn’t we all agree not to punish those who seek to solve Washington, D.C.’s problems?” Daines said.
The Obama administration closed and barricaded more than 400 parks nationwide during the 17-day shutdown, including privately owned properties.
Government-wide, 350,000 out of millions of federal employees were furloughed, including 80 percent of the National Park Service.
Daines cited instances of numerous hunters in Montana who were prohibited from accessing state property, because they could not pass through federal park property to reach hunting areas.
“Perhaps these were not public lands, these were government lands as the government was keeping the public from their own land,” Daines said.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, Oregon Democrat and ranking member of the committee, said he opposed the repayment because states intended the funding to be a donation, and that repayment might constitute an “earmark,” a funding mechanism now banned by House rules.
“If the Interior Department has the authority to pay back these donations, and they were given under a donation statute, that would mean a further hit to the parks which are already drastically underfunded,” DeFazio said.
“These (payments) were done voluntarily by states which did recognize the economic benefit that would be derived for themselves and their citizens from reopening those parks,” DeFazio said.
Colorado paid the federal government $363,000 to reopen Rocky Mountain National Park.
Although the National Park Service director testified before Congress that governors, including Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, were made aware that the money would not be repaid, Hickenlooper has reportedly written to Congress in support of the Republican measure demanding repayment.
The bill has not been scheduled for a House vote before the end of the year, but there is speculation the language might be included in the ongoing budget negotiations for fiscal year 2014 funding. Several Democrats are supporting the House bill, and Colorado Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet back a Senate companion measure.