Search for wall funds could hit Georgia projects

Funds set aside for Savannah’s port dredging project could be vulnerable if President Donald Trump chooses to declare a national emergency to build a wall on the southern border. (Archived photo by Brant Sanderlin)

Funds set aside for Savannah’s port dredging project could be vulnerable if President Donald Trump chooses to declare a national emergency to build a wall on the southern border. (Archived photo by Brant Sanderlin)

President Donald Trump could divert hundreds of millions of dollars intended for Georgia projects to pay for a wall on the southern border, including hard-fought funding previously set aside for the state's top economic development project.

That could happen because, if Trump declares a national emergency over border security, current law allows him to raid money from the Army Corps of Engineers and military construction projects. Georgia has had money set aside for more than a half-dozen military projects in the past two budget years, as well as Savannah’s port dredging project.

Trump has been openly mulling declaring such an emergency to circumvent Congress and secure the $5.7 billion he wants to build the wall, a central campaign pledge that's been at the heart of the three-week shutdown showdown with Democrats that's left roughly 16,000 Georgians furloughed or working without pay.

But on Friday, Trump said he was not looking to declare a national emergency “right now,” a reversal from recent comments that made the move sound imminent.

Under current law, declaring a national emergency would allow the president to take money Congress previously approved for Army civil works projects "that he deems non-essential to the national defense," giving him broad leeway to decide which coffers could be used to pay, in this case, for a wall.

Eligible money includes military construction projects whose budgets haven’t already been obligated, as well as projects funded under the Army Corps of Engineers’ construction accounts, according to a House Democratic aide who was not authorized to speak on the record and confirmed by a lobbyist familiar with the programs.

Over the past two fiscal years, Congress set aside roughly $186 million in the corps’ construction budget for work to deepen the riverbed in the Savannah harbor, a top-tier economic development project for the state that has united politicians from both sides of the aisle.

It’s unclear exactly how much of that federal money has already been obligated, or committed to different contracts, but the president could choose to take some if not all of the unspent dollars, according to the House aide. Spokesmen for the Georgia Ports Authority, the corps and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Ditto for the roughly $230 million in smaller construction projects at Georgia’s Fort Benning, Fort Gordon and Robins Air Force Base that Congress approved over the past two fiscal years. Information was not readily available on how much of that money — which was approved to build a cyber instructional facility, access control point and other infrastructure — has been spent to date, but given that both the fiscal 2018 and 2019 spending deals were approved within the past year, it’s likely there are sizable chunks that have yet to be obligated.

Spokesmen for the three Georgia bases did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump said Friday that he was not looking to immediately declare a national emergency, but in recent days he has defended his authority to do so to expedite construction of the wall.

“What we’re not looking to do right now is national emergency,” he said at a White House roundtable on Friday afternoon. “I’m not going to do it so fast.”

But, in a tweet, he also called the border’s security “a far worse situation than almost anyone would understand, an invasion!”

Trump added that Democratic leaders “don’t know how bad and dangerous it is for our ENTIRE COUNTRY.”

Democrats have responded that they are for tightening border security but say they will not “waste money” on a wall they say would be ineffective.

“One person is responsible for shutting down government: Donald Trump,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.

In Georgia, the state’s GOP lawmakers would be in a tough spot should Trump pursue the emergency avenue. All have been vocal advocates for the port and the state’s military bases, but they have also been supportive of the president and his quest to build a border wall.

“I do believe we need to continue to fund the construction projects within our military and we’ll get to that. But I think this is an option we can use because this is a security crisis we are dealing with,” U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, told Cox Media Group on Friday.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, whose 1st Congressional District includes Savannah, said he was in touch with the administration, the corps and the relevant House committees. He called the prospect of Georgia projects losing money to pay for the border wall “hearsay and hypothetical.”

“If Democrats continue to hold our government hostage and force President Trump to take his own actions to secure the border, I will continue working with the relevant departments to ensure the critical projects in the 1st District are protected and receive the resources needed,” he said.

Carter said he would prefer that Congress provide funding for the border wall rather than Trump being "forced into declaring a state of emergency," but he — like several Georgia Republicans in recent days — also indicated he was open to the president using the designation to both end the shutdown and start building the wall.

One coastal community that could be particularly impacted by Trump’s emergency designation is in Carter’s district.

The pot of money Trump has been eyeing most seriously to build the wall, according to media reports, has been a $13.9 billion account at the corps set aside for disaster recovery efforts. It includes $13 million to help Tybee Island rebuild its sand dunes.

The city had pushed for state and federal money to revitalize its buffer system for years, particularly after hurricanes Matthew and Irma, Mayor Jason Buelterman said. But very little federal money so far has been obligated, said Howard Marlowe, who lobbies for Tybee in Washington.

During both storms, “water poured through the gaps that we had in our dunes system and flooded properties far behind the initial frontline beachfront property,” Buelterman said in an interview Friday.

“If we don’t get (the money),” he said, “we’ll be stuck with no beach for storm-surge protection, a compromised dunes system and then, also, you don’t have anywhere for people to go to the beach at high tide.”