Wrapping up the 113th Congress: How Did Preservation Fare?

By Shaw Sprague posted 12-18-2014 17:11


Full reporting provided by National Trust Government Relations Staff

View of the Capitol from Lincoln's Cottage. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Having arrived at the end of an even-numbered year, we find ourselves at the close of another legislative session of Congress. A time marked by change, renewal, and opportunity, but also a time for policy wonks to reflect on the previous two years and take stock of the progress made and setbacks encountered on Capitol Hill. We have made important strides in preservation advocacy, but a great deal of work awaits in the new year, including advocating for the federal historic tax credit, increasing funding for the Historic Preservation Fund, preventing a weakening of our historic preservation laws, and safeguarding our public lands.

As we have come to expect in recent years, Congress finished assembling massive pieces of legislation in the final hours of the legislative session. Deep within the 1,600 page Omnibus Appropriations bill is the program that serves as the cornerstone for historic resource protection, the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF). The HPF received the same funding it did last year (and in the president’s request)—$56.4 million, including $500,000 for the program of competitive grants for the survey and nomination of properties associated with communities currently underrepresented in the National Register of Historic Properties. The historic preservation fund faces a clear challenge. Despite being authorized at $150 million annually, funding has never reached this level, and years of level funding have impeded the HPF’s ability to accomplish historic resource protection objectives. Next year, the authorization to appropriate funds for the historic preservation fund will expire. In coordination with our partners, we will be focused on reauthorizing the HPF and working toward full and permanent funding.

 Courtesy of Melissa Murphy
Alpine Painting and Sandblasting Contractors led volunteer teams in painting the stadium. | Courtesy of Duncan Kendell 

To wrap up the year, Congress also passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 to fund our defense activities, but added to this massive bill was a package of more than 50 public lands, parks and water provisions that had difficulty passing on their own. Key successes for National Treasure campaigns were the establishment of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and the inclusion of Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park. The bill also expanded the boundary of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum Historic Site in New York City. The last time a National Park bill or package of public lands bills of this size passed Congress was in March 2009. There were many great provisions in the bill and several harmful provisions. A summary of some of the good and bad can be found in our recent blog.

For more than 30 years the federal historic tax credit has incentivized the rehabilitation of our nation’s older buildings. A principal argument in support of the policy is that without this incentive the market would drive investment away from our older downtown areas and toward the surrounding exurbs. This job-creating community revitalizing investment has leveraged more than $109 billion toward the rehabilitation of nearly 40,000 buildings throughout the country. It is also a tax credit that more than pays for itself. Midway through the last session of Congress, Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI-04) challenged this policy by releasing a comprehensive tax reform proposal suggesting that a lower tax rate outweighs the benefit of preserving older and smaller properties. The preservation community was quick to respond. Within days of the release of the chairman’s proposal, hundreds of organizations and businesses from around the country joined in sending a letter to the chairman urging him not to repeal the credit, but to improve it.

While the Camp bill now dies at the end of this Congressional session, its impact lives on. When the 114th Congress gavels in with Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI-01) at the helm of the House Ways and Means Committee and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) leading the Senate Finance Committee, we begin our efforts anew to convince legislators that the historic tax credit is the most effective and affordable way to implement a policy that has long reflected the values of Americans from the urban core to our rural main streets. Working in our favor are the many strong partnerships we draw upon on each day from around the country. Over the past several years, we have witnessed that bringing together preservationists who are able to speak to the social value of historic preservation and business leaders who describe how historic tax credit projects work and why they are needed, delivers a compelling and persuasive message on Capitol Hill.

Our nation’s transportation policy is another area that demands the ongoing attention of the preservation community. Last year, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed the MAP-21 Reauthorization Act. Included in MAP-21 is a provision that would severely weaken Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, which is the nation’s strongest preservation law. Though this legislation was never considered by the full Senate, a divided Congress instead passed an extension of current transportation policy through May of 2015. Consequently, reauthorization of transportation law will be a legislative priority in the first half of next year. Our efforts continue to ensure this attack on Section 4(f) is not included in this “must pass” transportation bill next year.

Green Mountain Lookout | Credit: Brian Turner

We are grateful to have had a successful year with the passage of the Green Mountain Lookout Protection Act in April. Congressional intervention to save this historic cabin in the remote wilderness of Washington State was required after a court decision would have forced the U.S. Forest Service to remove or move it.

In 2014 we were busy supporting the Antiquities Act, America’s oldest preservation law, which has been responsible for the preservation and conservation of more than 100 sites across America by presidents of both parties. A bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to weaken the law passed. Fortunately, the bill did not progress in the Senate in the 113th Congress, but we can expect to see this threat again next year.

As the new Congress gets underway, your help will be needed to deliver an effective preservation message on Capitol Hill.  Please be on the lookout for National Trust action alerts and other opportunities to engage your members of Congress.

Shaw Sprague is the director for Government Relations and Policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

#Transportation #Advocacy #Wilderness #FederalHistoricTaxCredit #Section4f #congress

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