WASHINGTON — All six House members from South Carolina, in a rare display of bipartisan unity, have joined lawmakers from other coastal states in demanding that the federal government stop using harbor maintenance taxes for unrelated needs.
Congress established the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund in 1986 and levied an eighth of a cent per dollar tax on cargo importers to finance it, but the government diverts billions of dollars away from the fund for a range of other projects, some with no ties to maritime commerce.
Byron Miller, spokesman for the S.C. State Ports Authority, said as much as half of the $35 million collected last year at the Charleston and Georgetown ports wasn't employed for dredging or other maintenance.
"The taxes are being collected, but they're not being used for the reasons they're being collected," Miller said.
Lawmakers from South Carolina are upset with President Barack Obama for failing in his current budget proposal to seek $400,000 for a study on deepening the Charleston port to 50 feet.
Obama aides have pointed to divisions within the state's congressional delegation, saying Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Joe Wilson didn't sign a December 2010 letter from other S.C. lawmakers seeking the Charleston port funds.
The letter was spearheaded by Rep. Jeff Landry, a Louisiana Republican, and signed by 34 House members, among them 26 Republicans and eight Democrats.
Lawmakers from California, Washington, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi and Pennsylvania also penned their names to the appeal.
At its current depth of 45 feet, the Charleston harbor wouldn't accommodate a new generation of giant cargo ships slated to start arriving at Atlantic ports after the Panama Canal widening is completed in 2014.
While money from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund can't be used by statute to deepen ports, directing more of it for routine dredging would free up Army Corps of Engineers funds for such new projects.
Diverting money from the trust fund forces the Corps of Engineers to use more of its congressional appropriations for harbor maintenance, creating a backlog of deepening work in Charleston and elsewhere.
"The Harbor Maintenance Fund was put in place to dredge our ports and harbors," said Rep. Tim Scott, a first-term North Charleston Republican whose district includes the Charleston port.
"This is exactly how the funds should be used, and for no other purpose," Scott said. "When the federal government uses funds in ways they were not intended, it deserves to be criticized. And this must stop."
Scott signed a letter to House Budget Committee Paul Ryan, urging him to craft provisions putting an end to the diversions.
House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn of Columbia also signed the letter, along with Republican Reps. Jeff Duncan of Laurens, Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg, Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land and Joe Wilson of Lexington.
"Our ports are significant economic engines and are vital to our nation's economic future," Clyburn said. "We must ensure they remain viable through proper maintenance or we risk losing our competitive edge."