A bipartisan effort is under way in Congress that could produce a long-term solution to keeping the Friedman Memorial Airport air-traffic control tower in operation, U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo told Blaine County commissioners Wednesday.
The tower and others like it nationwide are currently funded only through September.
“We need a permanent solution and I think we can do that,” Crapo said.
He said legislation is being developed in Congress to give the Federal Aviation Administration and other federal agencies the authority to decide where to make budget cuts mandated by sequestration.
Crapo said across-the-board cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011—“which nobody thought would happen because it’s such a bad approach”—are just one example of a more general breakdown in the congressional budgeting process. He said Congress needs to return to its regular appropriations process, which used to produce numerous appropriations bills early each session, giving lawmakers the time to debate and modify them. Recently, he said, Congress has appropriated money by lurching from one continuing resolution to another and by passing omnibus spending bills that don’t come before the full House and Senate until nearly the end of the year.
“I believe that the gridlock we’re facing in Washington is tremendously damaging to our nation,” he said. “The clash of ideas is not bad, it’s good. What’s bad is when that clash is about personal attacks and partisanship.”
Crapo’s visit was part of a week-long trip to Idaho during which he met with local elected officials and nonprofit groups, beginning in Pocatello, swinging across southern Idaho and ending in Lewiston.
County commissioners raised two other issues important to the area—funding cuts in federal land management and in grants for emergency communications.
Commissioner Larry Schoen said the county has had very good relationships with the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM, but cooperative projects with the agencies have become bogged down due to personnel cuts.
“I don’t think it serves anyone to cut resources to those public agencies and then criticize them for not doing their jobs well,” Schoen said.
He pointed to the lack of a real estate staff person at the BLM’s Shoshone Field Office as an example. He said in an interview after the meeting that in order to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, the county is required to get permission from the BLM to change its management of a road on land at Ohio Gulch that it acquired from the agency, but cannot do so without a real estate staffer.
Crapo said he agrees that the Forest Service and BLM need to be adequately funded, but said public lands need to be managed in such a way as to allow local communities to raise more money.
However, the commissioners voiced objections to a proposal at the state level to transfer management of federal land in Idaho to the state. Schoen said the state doesn’t have the resources to do that job well and Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said privatization of federal land would harm, not help, Blaine County.
Schoen said local jurisdictions need either financial help from the federal government or more authority from the state to raise revenue to fund emergency communications. He pointed out that “interoperable” communications to allow all local emergency agencies to communicate with each other were installed to meet a federal mandate, and those systems need constant maintenance and upgrades.
“We’re being pushed at the local level without the resources to do that,” he said. “We have more costs and fewer [funding] options.”
He urged Crapo to help renew federal grants and to carry a message to state officials to expand the means by which counties can fund emergency communications.
“There are growing needs that we need to address,” Crapo said in agreement. “We have to do it smart. If we don’t understand the long-term implications [of budget cuts], we may end up costing more than we’re saving.”
Greg Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org