Bid to close Missouri mapping center draws opposition

Mapmaking might seem like a precise, dry activity. But a White House decision to close a mapping facility in Rolla, Mo., has provoked a passionate reaction from Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., and the state's other lawmakers.

The U.S. Geological Survey wants to close Rolla's Mid-Continent Mapping Center and two other regional facilities, which it says have become outdated as the agency's mission turns to more advanced forms of geospatial imaging.

Activities would be consolidated in a new National Geospatial Technical Operations Center, located at the fourth major mapping facility in Lakewood, Colo. Functions there would then be subject to potential competition with the private sector, under the White House's competitive sourcing initiative.

The decision reflects tough times for the USGS. While Congress has approved steady budget increases during the past six years, the agency still faces attrition, having fallen from 10,441 employees in fiscal 2002 to a projected 8,526 in fiscal 2007.

The Rolla facility is a major employer in Emerson's district -- which unlike the other districts that are home to mapping facilities in Reston, Va., and Menlo Park, Calif. -- does not have many job opportunities and will be less able to absorb the blow.

"Make no mistake, these jobs are fast-tracked for the private sector," said an Emerson spokesman, who said claims that Rolla is technologically obsolete are "poppycock."

Rolla already has lost about 35 employees since the decision was announced Sept. 15, said a USGS official opposed to the move. He declined to speak for the record because his views conflict with the administration's position, but the official described a "rift between headquarters and the field" over the consolidation plan.

During the House Appropriations Committee's May 10 markup, Emerson pushed through an amendment to the fiscal 2007 Interior bill preventing USGS from closing Rolla, instead directing $13 million of the agency's proposed $991.5 million budget to keep it running. The amendment passed on a voice vote, over the objections of Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Charles Taylor, R-N.C., who sided with the White House.

Anticipating Emerson, Interior's top budget official wrote Taylor May 3 that the USGS move was "based on a carefully developed business strategy." The Office of Management and Budget's Statement of Administration Policy on the Interior bill reiterated the department's opposition.

Colorado Republican Reps. Tom Tancredo and Bob Beauprez and Democratic Rep. Mark Udall also urged the appropriations leaders to oppose Emerson. They wrote May 9 that "we are alarmed and dismayed that a legislative maneuver might be used to derail a well thought out and well-studied decision" to consolidate operations in Lakewood that would "use scarce tax dollars more efficiently and effectively."

On the floor they offered and withdrew an amendment to strike the provision, after Taylor said he would try to undo it in conference. A Tancredo spokesman said the delegation did not push for a vote on the matter because Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and other Missouri members "made it clear to us that the USGS center wasn't going to be moved out of Missouri."

With its lawmakers strategically placed in leadership and on appropriations panels, Missouri enjoys more clout than Colorado with its relatively junior delegation.

Emerson will have powerful support from Senate Transportation-Treasury Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., who earlier this year said the USGS decision was "wrongheaded and completely unjustified."

At the behest of Missouri lawmakers, Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney investigated the selection process and found that although it provoked "confusion, frustration and distrust," there was no misconduct involved and the decision was "supported by the whole of the record."

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