Stateline Story

State Environmental Budgets Take $200M Hit

President Bush's FY2003 budget proposal for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would give states an additional $15 million to enforce clean air and water regulations, but that won't even begin to offset the substantial cuts many states are already making to their own environmental spending because of broader budget problems.

A survey conducted by the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) in December found that state budget cuts and reductions resulted in a cumulative $196.4 million hit for environmental agencies in the current fiscal year, with another $217 million expected to disappear next year.

Thirty of the 42 states responding to the survey, published in the Winter 2002 issue of the organization's quarterly publication ECOStates , reported cuts or reductions in environmental budgets this year, ranging from $18,800 to $89,100,000. Overall, the cuts averaged slightly more than one-percent of each agency's total funding.

The economic downturn has forced retrenchment in many state programs ranging from education to state employee benefits.

ECOS deputy executive director R. Steven Brown declined to identify which states had made environmental cuts, saying that ECOS agreed to keep states' responses confidential in order to get the best information.

ECOS is a non-profit, non-partisan organization representing top environmental officials in all 50 states.

Brown says environmental spending cuts were especially widespread in the eastern half of the country, with cuts being made in nearly every northeastern and Great Lakes state and in most southern states.

Apart from the ECOS survey, evidence of cuts to state environmental programs is abundant. Cuts to North Carolina's Clean Water Management Trust Fund trimmed nearly $21 million from water treatment and habitat protection projects around the state.

Michigan has slashed $16 million from its environmental protection budget. New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey yanked more than $30 million out of the state's land protection program. And Iowa's Department of Natural Resources lost 17 percent of its appropriation, state Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) director Amber Hard said.

The ECOS survey found most state agencies trying to get by with administrative cuts this year in the hope that an economic rebound will prevent the need for deeper program reductions in 2003. Typically, state environmental agencies receive 20 percent of their annual funding from general tax dollars, with trust funds, fee revenues and federal appropriations providing much of the remainder.

To date, 20 states have delayed or frozen new hires and another nine have imposed travel restrictions. Other states found savings in contract reductions, fee increases and reduced operating hours.

"The states are cutting things that can be cut without wrecking programs," Brown says.

Nine states said their cuts would have a "minimal impact to the public," but cuts in other states will remove or eliminate funding for water quality assessments, technical assistance programs, data management, open space preservation, and children's health, safe drinking water and environmental justice programs.

Brown says most states still don't know how a second year of cuts would affect programs. "Water programs were mentioned often for cuts, but no program will be spared if cuts are as deep as seems likely next fiscal year," he said.

The 14 percent cut to environmental spending in Michigan Gov. John Engler's FY2003 budget plan may offer a worst-case scenario. Much of the state Department of Environmental Quality's $69 million overall contraction will come out of the Clean Michigan Initiative, a 1998 Engler program intended to clean up waterways and abandoned, polluted sites known as brownfields.

Taking the states' finances into account, Brown said that the $15 million in new state-based enforcement money proposed by the Bush administration amounts to "a drop in the bucket.

"But it's a pretty important drop," he said.

A copy of the report may be found on the ECOS Web site.