This state’s highest economic priority has been the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, a measure that would allow the port to remain competitive just a couple of years from now after the widening of the Panama Canal is completed and super-sized cargo ships become the norm. It’s a project that has bipartisan support — a rarity these days — from Republican Gov. Nathan Deal to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and virtually every other elected official in the state.
It’s not hard to see why. The deepening would impact 352,146 full and part-time jobs (8.3 percent of the state’s employment), $66.9 billion in sales (9.5 percent of our total sales), $18.5 billion in income (5.2 percent of the state’s total personal income), $1.4 billion in state taxes and $1.1 billion in local taxes. It also would mean $4.5 billion in additional federal taxes.
How busy is the port? Approximately $54.1 billion worth of containerized cargo moved through it in fiscal 2011, or 8.7 percent of the total of all U.S. containerized trade.
The goods that move through Savannah travel our highways and railroads to every corner of the state, and Georgia products are shipped out via the same port.
The Obama administration had seemed to be on board with the $706 million deepening project, with VP Joe Biden famously proclaiming that “We are going to get this done, as my grandfather would say, come hell or high water!”
But Team Obama didn’t need hell or high water in order to pull the plug. The Obama budget proposal for fiscal 2015 did not include any money at all for the port, leaving Georgia leaders stunned. As Georgia House Speaker David Ralston put it, “We found out that ‘come hell or high water’ means about the same thing as ‘If you like your health insurance, you can keep it.’”
And there things likely would have stayed were it not for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) of east Cobb. Isakson, in a masterful bit of political leverage, used a nomination hearing for a presidential appointee to focus not on her but instead on the port and Obama’s failure to fund it.
The president has nominated current director of the Office of Management and Budget Sylvia Burwell to be the next Secretary of Health and Human Services. Isakson bored in on Burwell during the hearing, not about Obamacare but rather on her failure to fund the port project, saying he had “no more important responsibility as a member of the United States Senate” than to see the project funded.
Isakson also consulted privately with Burwell, her staff and top leaders at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to chart a path to assure the funding, a path that began with the passage Tuesday of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, also known as “WRRDA,” by a lopsided 412-4 vote. The bill’s importance was underscored by the fact that two Georgia congressmen running for U.S. Senate — Marietta’s Phil Gingrey and Savannah’s Jack Kingston — made a point to go to Washington on Primary Day for the vote.
Next will be a vote later this week on WRRDA by the Senate, which should also pass it.
At that point, it will be up to the president to sign — or veto — the bill. We hope it’s the former. His decision to strip the funding earlier this year was indefensible and unfathomable, but thanks to Isakson and the rest of the Georgia delegation, he’s getting a do-over.
He should take it.