A year after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Florida’s two senators -- Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson -- joined forces to support the RESTORE Act, a bipartisan effort to direct money from BP fines to Florida and other Gulf states affected by the 2010 oil spill.
But when the bill reached the Senate floor March 8 for a key vote, Rubio voted "no."
Why the change of heart?
Rubio said the bill that passed the Senate was "far different" than the one he supported in July.
"What started as a genuine bipartisan effort to dedicate as much BP fine money as possible towards Gulf Coast restoration has now turned into a raw deal that increases taxes, creates a new environmental bureaucracy, and could steer money to places like the Great Lakes and West Coast that had nothing to do with the oil spill," Rubio said.
"This is no longer a Gulf Coast restoration bill, it’s a federal power grab that exploits the BP spill to pay for special interest projects driven by the usual 'what's in it for me' Washington mentality," he said. "I will not support raising taxes to pay for BP’s mess or to pay for new spending projects across the country that have nothing to do with Gulf Coast restoration."
Rubio’s vote attracted attention because he was the only Gulf Coast senator to oppose the bill, and because a poll showed the vast majority of Floridians -- including Republicans and tea party supporters -- were in favor of the RESTORE Act.
Was Rubio correct to imply that states such as Michigan or California could get money related to the oil spill across the country? We decided to check it out.
The RESTORE Act
The RESTORE Act stands for the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived Economies. It was introduced in July 2011 by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and was cosponsored by Rubio, Nelson and other senators.
The legislation directs 80 percent of the fines in connection with the Deepwater Horizon explosion to go to Gulf Coast projects, and the remainder to the U.S. Treasury. In the Gulf, the money could be used for mitigating damage to wildlife, monitoring fisheries, promoting tourism and job creation. The fines could hit $20 billion.
On Sept. 21, the Senate’s committee on Environment and Public Works agreed to add an amendment that would create the National Endowment for the Oceans, a separate project which had stalled after being proposed in July 2010. Rubio is not a member of that committee.
As the title suggests, the endowment is a national program with money available for coastal areas including -- you guessed it -- the Great Lakes and West Coast among other places.
Environmentalists applauded that addition.
"We had the largest ecosystem damaging disaster we ever had," said Brian Moore, legislative director at National Audubon. "Wouldn’t it be a good idea to divert a small portion of that to study the health of all our oceans and large bodies of water?"
That "small portion" for the ocean endowment refers to half of the interest from the oil spill fine, not the fine itself. It’s impossible to predict what portion could go to the Great Lakes or West Coast, said Emily Woglom, director of government relations at the Ocean Conservancy.
"It will be driven by merits of proposals, and regardless, we are likely talking about millions of dollars for ocean endowment as compared to billions of dollars for the gulf restoration fund," she said.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the RESTORE Act could fund an endowment of $138 million by 2021 for both the ocean endowment and the Gulf of Mexico.
On Feb. 15, 2012, Nelson submitted an amendment to the transportation bill in the Senate that included the version of the RESTORE Act with the oceans provision. Rubio was a cosponsor.
On March 7, Nelson submitted the amendment again, but Rubio was no longer a cosponsor. On March 8, the Senate passed the amendment 76-22, prompting Rubio’s protest. The Senate passed the full transportation bill March 14 again by 76-22 with Rubio again voting "no."
Rubio’s "no" vote on the RESTORE Act puzzled some its supporters: Why didn’t he speak up publicly earlier?
Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said that on the original bill that "we made clear on a staff level that Sen. Rubio wouldn’t support the National Endowment for Oceans. … We were hoping the final bill would not include that and (Rubio would) be able to support it."
The ocean endowment wasn’t the only part that bothered Rubio. He explained his vote in more detail in an editorial, and he included criticism of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, an existing fund that uses fees from oil and gas leasing in federal waters to purchase and protect land. Language was added to the RESTORE Act to allow the conservation fund to get a boost in money.
Woglom of the Ocean Conservancy said that technically the conservation fund isn’t getting BP fine money, but that the RESTORE Act and the Conservation Fund are sharing an offset to cover the increase in spending. Under pay-go budget rules, any change has to be accounted as new spending even if it comes from fines, and therefore needs an offset.
The offset comes out of money generated by a delay in an interest rate adjustment for business investment. Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist called that a tax increase. Rubio signed Norquist’s tax pledge in 2009, and if Rubio had voted for the RESTORE Act, Norquist could make the case that Rubio had violated his pledge.
Moore, who favors the Land and Conservation Fund, said that isn’t a tax increase -- it extends an existing statute that makes businesses that make a profit overseas continue to pay a tax.
RESTORE had not made it into law as of March 20, 2012, because the House had not passed a full transportation bill. The House version of RESTORE doesn’t include the oceans endowment, so the two chambers will need to resolve their differences.
Rubio said the RESTORE Act started as an "effort to dedicate as much BP fine money as possible towards Gulf Coast restoration" but now "could steer money to places like the Great Lakes and West Coast." It's not the fine money itself that could go to other bodies of water, but interest from the fines. Half the interest could go to an ocean endowment for coastal regions nationwide, including the Great Lakes and West Coast. The bulk of the fines themselves will still go to the Gulf Coast. The small amount was set aside to attract votes from non-Gulf senators.
And in fact, the legislation passed the Senate by a wide enough margin to guarantee that Rubio’s home state will get the money and still allow him to say he voted against tax increases.
Publicly, Rubio was quiet about the provision to protect other bodies of water for months, though we are rating him here on the truthfulness of his words, not the timing of his protest. Some money from the RESTORE Act could go to the Great Lakes and the West Coast, but the bulk of the money -- particularly the fines themselves -- would still go to the Gulf Coast. We rate his claim Half True.