Posted by: wadahp | February 2, 2010

On the Hill: Short-Sighted Budget Slashes Preservation Funding

by National Trust for Historic Preservation on February 2nd, 2010

Written by Pat Lally

Remember my comments in the blog I posted last week on the State of the Union? That the President’s address sets the stage for his budget? That the three-year freeze he proposed could lead to cuts? Well, the White House sent its Budget Request to Capitol Hill yesterday, as it typically does the first Monday in February. How did preservation fare? Let’s just say that it wasn’t a very good day for us.

Save America’s Treasures (SAT), the nation’s only bricks-and-mortar grant program, is proposed for elimination. Not since the 1980’s has there been such an assault on the programs that protect America’s heritage. Since 2000, SAT has been the federal government’s most successful tool to preserve the important places that tell our nation’s story. Due to the broad, bi-partisan Congressional support it has on the Hill, the program has saved over 700 of America’s most significant places in all 50 states, supporting jobs and economic development in every single project it covers. 

The elimination of SAT would represent a 25% reduction in the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF), the account that funds the core activities of the national historic preservation program. How ironic just as preservationists have mounted a nationwide campaign to get the HPF fully funded. Even though it is supposed to get $150 million annually, the fund barely sees half that from Congress. If the House and Senate go along with this Budget Request, the HPF will now get only a third of what it should receive.

But here’s the biggest irony in the President’s Budget Request (and a little-known fact). Technically speaking, SAT and the other core national preservation programs under the HPF cost the American taxpayer nothing. You see, this account, by law, is funded by the revenue  received from offshore oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf. Years ago, Congress had the foresight to place historic preservation in this dedicated account along with other “conservation” activities. Their rationale was that as non-renewable resources are expended (such as fossil fuels), some of the associated revenue should help pay for the conservation and preservation of other non-renewable resources, such as sensitive ecosystems and nationally-significant buildings, collections, and objects.

Makes sense, right? Well, the problem is that both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have budgeted much of this money for purposes other than historic preservation, and that simply has to stop. In fact, some of the other conservation activities that are funded by oil and gas leasing revenue are increased substantially in this Budget Request, just as we were slashed. It seems to me that preservationists need to make it loud and clear to their lawmakers as to why we need every penny of the $150 million that we’re supposed to get from Washington every year.

The final irony is that, among federal programs, SAT stands out as a model of efficiency and effective spending. You see, every grant recipient under this program is required to find a dollar-for-dollar, non-federal match. To date, SAT has raised more than $350 million in non-federal and private funds. As a result, SAT has been enormously successful in leveraging private-sector financing and creating  productive and sustained partnerships with large corporations, foundations, and individuals that provide matching contributions. Here is just a small glimpse into some of the places and things that SAT has helped preserve for future generations: Ellis Island, Mesa Verde National Park, Valley Forge, Thomas Edison’s Invention Factory,  and the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the “Star Spangled Banner.” 

Now, I’ve placed so much emphasis on SAT because, in the grand scheme of things, it make no sense at all to eliminate. But it is also important to know that this Budget Request would cut and eliminate  other worthy and valuable preservation programs if adopted. Preserve America, a sister program to SAT for preservation education and outreach (funded out of the National Recreation Account), would be eliminated. National Heritage Area funding would be cut by half. And lastly, for the State and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers who are the backbone of the national historic preservation program – level funding from last year. What this really means is that they will continue to be inadequately funded and often unable to keep up with their enormous workloads.

In just four weeks, preservationists will be coming to Washington to meet with their elected representatives during Historic Preservation Advocacy Week. We’ll be making a full court press on the Hill to oppose the elimination of SAT and Preserve America. We’ll also oppose other cuts to important preservation programs, and lobby for increased funding for State and Tribal Offices. In the meantime, stay tuned for our call to action to engage your Member of Congress; we need everyone to express their opposition to how this Budget Request treats critical historic preservation programs.

Pat Lally is the congressional affairs director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Stay tuned for a behind-the-scenes look at how preservation policy is made through his weekly posts from the Hill.

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