Bush Leaves States Holding Environment Bag, Critics Say

President Bush's new budget gives states more responsibility to protect the environment and conserve natural resources, but state officials say it fails to give them much new cash to get the job done. State officials say they'd like more support from an administration that would scale back the federal regulatory role if Bush has his way.

The president's budget "has some good news and some not so good news. There are a number of tradeoffs," said Christophe Tulou, who directs intergovernmental affairs for the Environmental Council of the States ( ECOS ), the national organization of state and territorial environmental directors. "You've got a wonderful $450 million initiative for combined sewer outflows (CSOs)," money intended to prevent the discharge of untreated wastewater from old systems into nearby lakes and streams during storms. "Unfortunately, $450 million is taken out of the state water quality revolving funds in order to take care of that," Tulou said.One effect of the administration's CSO proposal would be to favor small towns in the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific Northwest where most of the outdated sewers are located at the expense of overall water quality efforts there and in other regions.

Environmental groups, who have long criticized states' readiness to enforce air, water and waste regulations and protect land resources, wildlife and public health, say the Bush plan is unquestionably "bad news."

"The [president's] budget would cripple the [Environmental Protection Agency's] ability to enforce the safeguards that protect our families from pollution, and hand an even greater portion of this important responsibility to a patchwork quilt of state agencies that have mixed records on cracking down on polluters," said Amy Maron of the Sierra Club's environmental quality program.

The Bush budget cuts environmental spending in several agencies working through or with the states, including $500 million cut in EPA funding and a $788 million overall reduction for conservation agencies in the Agriculture Department. The U.S. Geological Survey, a division of the Department of the Interior, will lose over $30 million for vital water quality assessments.

"USGS has just been a critically important partner in providing as much of a factual basis as we have for making some of our key water decisions, both in terms of supply and quality," said Tulou, who served under former Delaware Gov. Tom Carper (D) as secretary of natural resources and environmental control.

One bright spot for conservation interests came in the administration's $900 million request for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the nation's savings account for the purchase of land for parks and wildlife refuges. States would receive an unprecedented $450 million for land acquisitions under the Bush plan.

But environmentalists like Roger Schlickeisen of Defenders of Wildlife say this is little more than "sleight of hand" that fails to offset reductions in other conservation programs.

On the regulatory side, the Bush plan amounts to a deeper investment in the states' roles as frontline assessors, investigators and enforcers of environmental protections.A forthcoming ECOS study shows that states already perform 90 percent of all current enforcement actions. As of 1998, the states had assumed responsibility for roughly three-quarters of the programs that EPA may delegate to them, state analysts say.

EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman says her agency's proposed budget includes $3.3 billion for grants, $2.1 billion of which would go to state water infrastructure programs.

Among these grants are a pair of new $25 million appropriations for enforcement and data collection. Tulou says that "$25 million compared to whatever states are spending collectively is going to be pretty small," released in May 2000.

This year as many as 19 states are tightening their belts and many more are bracing for the possibility, with slower revenue growth and continued Medicaid overruns ushering in the lean times in many cases. State analysts caution that when states look around for fat to trim, environmental programs may be among the first to get the ax."In a tight budget situation, health and education are going to cut out everything else. There could be a drop in environmental funding," says William Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures .

Around the country, states have already had to shift priorities.

  • In Maryland, where Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has championed "smart growth" policies throughout his six-year tenure, lawmakers trimmed $34 million from Glendening's $109 million request for the first installment of multi-year mass transit and open space purchasing programs.
  • Last month, the Florida Senate plundered an open space fund for $100 million to cover cash-strapped education and human services programs.
  • State budget proposals in Ohio and Wisconsin would scrap youth conservation crews.
  • The Colorado Department of Natural Resources faces possible cuts after lawmakers began looking to the state's $34 million pot of oil, gas and mining severance tax revenues as a funding source for special projects. The fund typically supports avalanche and water quality efforts.
  • Mississippi dropped its general fund appropriation for the Department of Environmental Quality by $2 million. Oklahoma officials say their funding will remain flat.
  • The Virginia General Assembly began the 2001 session with no illusions about the status of environmental spending. Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore's proposed budget decreased funding for open space preservation, oyster and blue crab restoration efforts, soil and water conservation districts and the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. Gilmore's stonewall adherence to his promise to deliver 70 percent relief from the state's personal property tax on automobiles has lawmakers still focused on resolving fiscal differences long after the end of the regular session in February.
  • Minnesota's Pollution Control Agency anticipates two years of sinking funds, due to inflation, diminishing fee revenues and the termination of federal grants, resulting in a nine percent staff reduction. Lawmakers have blocked proposed fee hikes and the agency says that the legislature's stopgap funding is now beginning to wane.
  •  The North Carolina Zoo, part of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, raised entrance fees $2 for adults and $1 for children and senior citizens in order to cover funds lost to other programs as a result of the state's projected $791 million shortfall. Gov. Easley's budget would raise the state's Clean Water Management Trust Fund from $30 million and $70 million, but other cutbacks may force DENR to trim the payroll and create a priority list for animal feedlot inspections.