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Deep down in a voluminous bill outlining next year’s Pentagon spending, U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, has fired a warning shot across the bow of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority.
The $512 billion Pentagon spending package includes a pay raise for soldiers, more armored Humvees and increased funding for technology that deters deadly roadside bombs used by the Iraq insurgency. Way down on page 518 of the 552-page bill is a provision banning commercial use of the three local military bases the airport authority is studying as possible homes for a new airport.
The spending package was approved Friday by a 60-1 vote of the House Armed Services Committee, which Hunter leads as chairman. The bill moves this week to the House floor, just as the airport authority prepares to release in-depth studies May 15 outlining the costs of building commercial airports at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Naval Air Station North Island and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
“This provision rightfully protects San Diego’s military assets, which are not for the Airport Authority to restructure or replace,” Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Hunter, wrote in an e-mail. “There are certainly viable options for sustaining Lindbergh Field’s future needs, but joint-use or replacement of San Diego’s national security assets is not one of them.”
The House and Senate must ultimately reconcile any differences between their two defense spending bills before the final version heads to President Bush for final approval. If approved, Hunter’s language would broaden a similar provision that Congress approved in 1996, which prohibited the civilian use of Miramar.
Congress is an important player in the site-selection process. Some airport authority members say Congress could serve a vital role if a military base is ultimately chosen and approved by voters as the region’s next airport site in November.
The Pentagon doesn’t have plans to close the bases – local military officials say recent base closure rounds have only affirmed the bases’ importance – so Congress would have to intervene to effect any change.
Some see Hunter’s move as a reinforcement of what a majority of local congressmen have repeatedly said: A new San Diego commercial airport doesn’t belong on a military base. Hunter and Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, and Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, have opposed shared use of military bases.
“The broader implication is that Congress is revealing its will, or its intention,” said Wade Sanders, a former deputy assistant secretary of the Navy and a San Diego attorney familiar with the site-selection process. “Congress is not saying to the airport authority ‘Stop what you’re doing.’ But Congress has indicated what their position is on the outcome.”
Authority board member Xema Jacobson said she interprets the provision as a response to the authority’s assertion that the military may cede a base in the future, even as the secretary of the Navy explicitly says the bases aren’t available – and won’t be.
“I see it as the big ‘Heck no,’” Jacobson said.
But board member William D. Lynch disagreed, saying the language is little more than pork – a project that has neither been vetted fully by a majority of Congressman nor heavily lobbied by any stakeholders.
Ultimately, he said, local leaders such as Mayor Jerry Sanders will have to mobilize the area’s congressional delegation to explain the reasons a military base is needed.
“The unfortunate truth is that it’s another attempt to muzzle this issue and not get it before the people and to keep us from even studying this,” Lynch said. “[Hunter] is telling the citizens of this county: ‘Live with Lindbergh, it’ll do you just fine.’ And he’s wrong, in my view.”