Fish aid money for Maine, Northeast remains uncertain

Posted Dec. 30, 2012, at 6:16 a.m.

The U.S. Senate easily retained $150 million in fisheries disaster aid Friday as part of a much larger Superstorm Sandy relief bill, but the package faces less certain prospects in the House, where GOP leaders appear reluctant to move quickly on a big spending bill in the final days of the session.

The fisheries aid, with funding for Maine, the other four coastal New England states and New York, was put in place because sharply increased catch limits next year could put many out of business.

An amendment to strike non-Sandy related spending from the supplemental appropriation bill was defeated 60-35. Among New England senators from New England coastal states, only Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, voted to delete the non-Sandy spending, including the fisheries disaster funding from the bill.

“This is a big win for our fishermen, but this has been a fight more than a year in the making and there’s still work to do,” Sen. John Kerry, D.-Mass., said in an email. “I’ve made their case to the leadership of the Senate, the Appropriations Committee and to the Administration to get this far, and I’ll continue to work with my Massachusetts colleagues in the House to make sure that this funding is enacted into law.”

That will be difficult. “We’ve not heard anything official,” Betsy Arnold, Rep. John Tierney’s chief of staff, said in a telephone interview late Friday, “but it doesn’t seem likely that the House will take up the Sandy bill.”

Speaker John Boehner has called the House back to work for Sunday, four days before the end of the session which is the deadline for achieving a negotiated three way deal — White House, Senate and House — on spending cuts and new revenue streams to avoid a suite of automatic spending cuts and tax hikes.

CQ Roll Call reported Thursday that the Sandy supplemental spending bill was not discussed in a conference call that Republican leaders held with their members.

If the House demurs, as sources from both parties predict, the six states granted fisheries disaster status in September by declaration of the acting Secretary of Commerce in September will have to wait until the installation of the 113th Congress, which is unencumbered by any incomplete actions of the 112th.

The uncertainty surrounding any fisheries disaster aid is the latest delay facing the industry.

Gov. Deval Patrick filed his second, expanded case for a disaster declaration in November 2011, and soon was joined by the governors of New Hampshire and Maine. But despite the assurances of NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing at the time that the disaster claim would be processed quickly, the admission that the groundfishery had descended into economic failure was put off for 11 months.

By September, when Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank finally approved the multiple requests, the presidential and congressional elections were looming, and the funding for the affected states was put off until after the nation voted.

Lubchenco announced on Dec. 12 that she was stepping down at the end of February, but claimed “our notable progress” includes “returning fishing to profitability” despite Commerce’s own recognition of the “economic disaster” in the Northeast.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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