— Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, on July 18, 2012, describing the president’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative at five major ports, including Savannah.
SO WHAT happened in the last nine months?
The same president who was rightly hot to trot on deepening one of the few U.S. ports that’s a net exporter of American-made products has suddenly — and disappointingly — turned into an ice sculpture.
Mr. Obama’s recommendation of a paltry $1.28 million in federal funds in the next fiscal year for the proposed deepening project is more than hypocritical. It’s insulting. Not just to Savannah, this state and the Southeast. It’s insulting to a nation that needs to sell more of its products abroad to put people to work here at home.
Depressingly, Mr. Obama’s number is only slightly more than the $1 million that Vice President Joe Biden spent on fancy hotels in his trip to London and Paris earlier this year.
Creating paychecks is more important than providing room service. It’s a good thing that the president’s budget proposal, which was released Wednesday, is just that. A proposal.
Congress is free to come up with its own spending plan — with U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Savannah) a key member of the House Appropriations Committee, leading the way.
The projected cost of the Savannah harbor deepening project is $652 million. The state of Georgia has already allocated $231 million for this needed investment, which would allow Savannah to deepen its harbor so it could handle the supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving through an enlarged Panama Canal in 2015.
Work is expected to start here later this year.
State officials had hoped the White House would recommend about $100 million in its latest budget proposal, which would fund about half of project’s current amount — a 15-year-old projection that’s probably on the low side. And why not? When a president says something, you’d like to believe he means (at least most of) it.
Of course, there’s a good chance Mr. Obama could be using Savannah port funding as a bargaining chip. He may seek to trade it to get support that he needs from individual Georgia legislators to push his priority list through Congress, particularly through the Republican-controlled House.
That may be why U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) took a more diplomatic tone.
“I am pleased that the administration continues to have a placeholder in the budget for the Port of Savannah and has maintained the commitment to keep it there,” Mr. Isakson said.
The problem with such posturing is that there’s no guarantee of success. That hurts Democrats and Republicans alike. The more that partisans on both sides have to twist arms and trade votes to get anything done, the greater the chance that worthy projects like port deepening get left by the wayside.
So while Mr. Isakson is right — it’s better to be a “placeholder” in the budget than to be left out completely — the $1.28 million amount for harbor deepening barely reaches the chicken feed level. It suggests that Mr. Obama is either oblivious to what Savannah’s port means to America’s economy, which seems doubtful, or that he has other goals right now.
Pushing for substantially more federal funds should be a slam dunk. Just look at the numbers.
Georgia’s ports contribute $32.4 billion a year to the state’s economy alone. They account for more than 352,000 jobs.
Mr. Obama is fond of the “T” word: Taxes. In this case, the ports contribute $4.5 billion in federal taxes annually. That’s billion with a “B.”
Yet Mr. Obama can pencil in only .0000000284 percent of that amount in his budget blueprint for Savannah harbor deepening. That’s beyond ludicrous.
(Last) week’s glum announcement proves that talk is cheap — especially when it comes out of this White House. Let’s hope that this is just a starting number for improving the harbor of America’s second-largest port for exports.
The president who once proclaimed “we can’t wait” for Savannah’s project will have time to prove whether he’s a leader who keeps his promises or a politician who breaks them.