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Tom Baxter

Urgency over federal money for harbor deepening contrasts with laxity in processing food stamps

By Tom Baxter

Little noticed amid all the furor last week over the Obama Administration’s failure to include the Savannah port-dredging project in the next federal budget were the latest dispatches from the Panama Canal Zone. They might have helped everyone sleep a little easier over the delay.

The federal money was desired and expected because Savannah is racing with other East Coast ports to be deep and wide enough to accommodate the larger container ships coming with the completion of the Panama Canal Zone widening project next year.

We’ve already raised questions about just how big a hurry there really is to prepare for this new trade. Now comes word that massive cost overruns and contract disputes have pushed back the opening of the expanded canal from June to December of next year, or possibly longer. How much longer it will be before the big ships begin to make regular use of the enlarged canal is hard to say.

So there may not be as much urgency over getting this project off the blocks as as been portrayed. On the surface, the budgetary snub by the White House has the looks of a roadblock, no doubt put there for a reason, that will be worked out behind the scenes before Savannah loses any serious ground to Charleston or Jacksonville.

But in the meantime, the White House has informed the state that it can’t even spend its own money to begin the project, as Gov. Nathan Deal announced he would do shortly after learning the expected federal dollars weren’t in the new federal budget.

With the cold shoulder has come political opportunity for all concerned. The Republicans get to denounce the White House for backing out on what they thought, perhaps carelessly, was a sure thing after Vice President Joe Biden said the deal would be done “come hell or high water.” (On reflection, the vice president’s comment was confident, but not terribly specific.) The congressional Democrats can show their solidarity by joining the Republicans in outrage over the snub, while Jason Carter reminds them that they’re getting what they asked for with their constant challenges to Obama.

“Today the Georgia delegation stood united in concern and disbelief over the lack of support shown for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project,” U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston said somberly, reflecting the home-team reaction to the news. The tempest over the $652 million dredging project ($391 million of which is expected from the feds, while the state has set aside $231 million) reflects one side of Georgia’s dysfunctional relationship with the federal dollar.
The appalling story of the state Department of Family and Children’s Services inability to process food stamp claims for tens of thousands of Georgia families for months, prompting the Department of Agriculture to threaten cutting off the funds if the state doesn’t clean up its act, is another side of that relationship. We’re not competently spending the dollars we’ve got — and which the feds are now threatening to take away — even as we’re outraged over a delay in the dollars we don’t need as badly.
And rounding out this picture of dysfunction, of course, there’s our steadfast refusal to accept the federal dollars that are the lure to accept the Medicaid expansion which is likely to come sooner or later anyway.

We don’t want the money, we’ve got to have the money and we don’t know how to spend the money — but it’s Washington that’s the problem. Maybe we should have a race to see how fast we can straighten out all the food stamp claims, and take a cue from the Panamanians and just chill over the harbor deepening.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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