Waiting for Congress

By John "JB" Byrd

Legislation affecting the geospatial profession is like any other legislation in Congress: Gridlock is preventing much of anything from happening.  Partisan, philosophical, and, yes, political differences are standing in the way of progress on major legislation.

Both the House and Senate have approved bills reauthorizing the federal highway program, a major source of funding and demand for surveying and mapping services, data, and technologies.  But the two chambers’ versions are different on every major issue: how many years the program will be continued, the fiscal size of the program, how funds are allocated and spent, and the role of private investment via public-private partnerships.

The differences will be difficult to overcome. One particularly thorny issue was a House provision that would force completion of the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if it survived the House-Senate conference, could have led to a veto by President Obama.

There were some important similarities between the Senate and House approaches, including reforms in transportation governance, project delivery streamlining, the program structure at the Department of Transportation, and the absence of earmarks. In late June, final agreement was reached. A bill combining highways, FEMA flood insurance reform, and interest rates on student loans passed both chambers before the July 4 break and was signed into law on July 6 by President Obama.

Of particular importance to the surveying and mapping community is a provision in both the House and Senate versions, known as the RESTORE Act.  It creates a “Restoration Science, Observation, Monitoring, and Technology Program” to allocate funds from fines and penalties from events such as the Deepwater Horizon incident for restoration of the Gulf States.  The Senate bill includes a provision authorizing funds to be used for “comprehensive observation, monitoring, and mapping of the Gulf of Mexico.” The final bill included the mapping language.

The highway portion of the bundled bill also included a provision long sought by MAPPS.  It strengthens current law requiring state departments of transportation to increase its use of, rather than duplicate or compete with, the private sector in surveying and mapping.  Opportunities for the geospatial community were created with a provision to create inventory and inspection standards for national bridges and tunnels and authorization of an intelligent transportation system program.  The bill also included a provision advocated by the Council on Federal Procurement of Architectural and Engineering Services (www.cofpaes.org) clarifying that the Brooks Act’s qualifications-based selection process is required for architecture, engineering, surveying, and mapping contracts on all state projects funded by the Federal Highway Administration (FHwA), not just those related to construction, as FHwA had earlier opined.

Also on the Congressional to-do list is a bill to extend the FEMA flood insurance program.  The House passed H.R. 1309, the Flood Insurance Reform Act, in July of last year. In December, the Senate Banking Committee reported a flood insurance bill, S. 1906. The final bill included numerous mapping reform provisions, including re-establishing a technical mapping advisory council and creating an inter-agency funding pool for elevation data.

The “Federal Prison Industries Competition in Contracting Act” has 19 bipartisan cosponsors. Among the provisions in the bill affecting surveying and mapping are bans on prison entities from providing “a service in which an inmate worker has access to personal or financial information about individual private citizens, including information relating to such person’s real property, however described, without giving prior notice to such persons or class of persons to the greatest extent practicable” or giving inmates access to “geographic data regarding the location of surface and subsurface infrastructure providing communications, water and electrical power distribution, pipelines for the distribution of natural gas, bulk petroleum products and other commodities, and other utilities; or data that is classified.”  These provisions would essentially prohibit prison industries from being engaged in GIS activities.  A Senate bill, also bipartisan and with GIS provisions, is being considered but has not been introduced. 

NOAA’s mapping, charting, and geodesy activities, currently housed in its National Ocean Service, would move to a new National Geospatial Technology Administration (NGTA) within USGS under another bill. The “Map It Once, Use It Many Times Act” would create the new USGS entity to enhance the use of geospatial data, products, technology, and services to increase the economy and efficiency of Federal geospatial activities; create a National Geospatial Policy Commission to develop and periodically amend a comprehensive plan to be known as the ‘‘National Geospatial Data Plan’’; and consolidate geospatial activities, eliminate obsolete programs, and establish contemporary priorities, such as national parcel, elevation, and imagery programs.

Legislation to develop a current, accurate inventory of all real property owned by the U.S. government has been introduced in the House and Senate. The Federal Land Asset Inventory Reform (FLAIR) Act is in the House, while the Senate has its own version. An accurate inventory of land owned by the federal government has been recommended by the Government Accountability Office and the National Academy of Sciences. The FLAIR Act implements these recommendations, as well as calls for an inventory of existing inventories to eliminate duplication and save tax dollars.

The chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, which has jurisdiction over USGS, held a field hearing on “Federal Geospatial Spending, Duplication and Land Inventory Management” in Colorado Springs, CO on May 3. Witnesses, all of whom presented testimony supporting the geospatial reform bills, included Anu Mittal, director, Natural Resources and Environment Division, U.S. Government Accountability Office; Brian Raber, CMS, GISP, GLS, vice president, Merrick & Company and a member of the MAPPS board of directors; John M. Palatiello, executive director of MAPPS; Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform, Reason Foundation; Brian Myers, PLS, on behalf of the National Society of Professional Surveyors; and Dr. Steve Jennings, associate professor and acting chair, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs.

Action on these pending bills during 2012 is unknown. Congress is expected to return to the capitol for a post-election “lame duck” session, when action on these bills, and other important matters including taxes and the budget, could occur.

John “JB” Byrd is the government affairs manager for John M. Palatiello & Associates, a public affairs, association management, and consulting firm in Reston, VA. He has more than 10 years of public-policy experience. He is also the government affairs manager for MAPPS, the national association for private-sector geospatial firms.

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