GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

November 12, 2012

Fishing aid tied to fed budget talks

By Richard Gaines Staff Writer
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — The lame duck session of the 112th Congress begins today, giving lawmakers and President Obama a month of workdays to play what sets up as a legislative stare-down, bordered by the proverbial cliff of sequestration — trillions of dollars in automatic budget cuts that were programmed to click in if a debt reduction compromise cannot be struck.

Overshadowed by the scale of the pieces in play on the national chess board — trillions in budget cuts, tens if not hundreds of billions in potential tax cuts lost and gained, and unspecified help for Hurricane Sandy’s victims and farm victims of drought — is a unified effort by the New England and New York congressional delegations to place a marker for $100 million for disaster assistance for fishermen and fishing communities.

That cause seemed a perfect fit for a program President Obama outlined in his Friday news conference.

“It’s a plan to reward small businesses and manufacturers that create jobs here, not overseas,” said the President describing his target for help.

“Sounds like the fishing industry,” said Kathryn Prael, spokeswoman for Rep. John Tierney, who was re-elected last Tuesday to a ninth term from the 6th District which includes Cape Ann.

How the fishing aid, an easy to remember round number, gets into an agreed-upon spending bill, if there is to be one, is uncertain.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry, who took it upon himself to circulate a letter before the election recess behind a $100 million aid plan, did not respond Friday to a query for strategic plans. Kerry’s office, however, did forward the letter which was signed by the senators and shoreline representatives from the five coastal New England states and New York — all of which were included in a declaration of a fisheries disaster issued in September. The declaration came roughly a year after Gov. Deval Patrick first filed evidence that federal fisheries policies pushed by NOAA and Jane Lubchenco had brought the industry in his state to its knees.

After the first filing was rejected, Patrick refiled in November 2011, this time citing socio-economic studies showing that the dayboat fleet was financially sinking and that across all the different gear types and boat sizes the industry was in “failure” the legal term required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act for the declaration of a disaster.

NOAA has made no effort to fund its belated disaster declaration, leaving Kerry and his colleagues to improvise in a tight window.

At the time last September, Kerry had supposed it might be possible to link the disaster assistance to a re-authorization of the Farm Bill. But last week, the Reuters News Service reported from Milwaukee that Congress might put off enacting a farm bill until spring 2013.

“If they try a one-year extension,” Barry Flinchbaugh, a Kansas State University agricultural economist, was quoted as saying, “ I don’t know where they’re going to get the money.”

Democratic and Republican sources on Capitol Hill told the Times the early signs of the impending negotiations between House Republican and Senate Democratic leaders and the White House suggested a single agreement — including the plethora of side issues, such as the fishing disaster appropriation — to avoid the fiscal cliff of sequestration that is due Jan. 2, 2013. That’s when across-the-board 8.2 percent cuts in the federal budget kick in if a deal is not struck. And it’s a date when, beyond the fishing industry, steeper across-the-board Defense cuts could also cost Cape Ann companies such as Gorton’s, Bomco Industries and Strong Leather a number of their Defense contracts.

“Nothing is going to move unless it’s part of the fix-all,” said a Republican staffer.

“The fishing aid needs to be part of the big deal,” said a Democratic staffer. “It’s a real shot in the dark.”

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.