Bay Journal

Bush budget cuts funding for cleanup efforts, oyster research

Tight budget may limit ability of Congress to protect programs

  • By Karl Blankenship on March 01, 2006

The Bush administration in February proposed a budget that would slash numerous Chesapeake-related initiatives below funding levels approved by Congress for the current year.

Programs that help to fund wastewater treatment plant upgrades and oyster restoration would be among the hardest hit by the proposed cuts. And some popular initiatives, such as the Small Watershed Grants Program and the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network would have their funding eliminated under the spending plan.

“This budget would provide less money for the Bay’s most important programs,” said Ann Jennings, Virginia executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “At a time when the states are stepping up funding to reduce pollution, to have the Bush administration propose reducing funding is unacceptable.”

The president’s budget outlines the administration’s spending priorities for the 2007 fiscal year which begins Oct. 1. But the actual decisions are made by Congress, which allocates money for specific programs in a series of appropriations bills which are typically enacted in the summer and fall.

The president’s budget “always come in lower than we want,” said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-MD. “He has his priorities, and we have our priorities, and it’s met somewhere in the middle.”

For most programs, the administration’s 2007 budget actually seeks similar levels to those it had requested for the present year. Yet Bay-related initiatives ended up with far more money than the administration sought because of additions, known as earmarks, by Congress.

Typically, administrations ignore those earmarks when developing their budgets for the following year, even for programs specifically authorized by Congress. For instance, the legislation authorizing the EPA’s Bay Program also specifically created the Chesapeake Bay Small Watershed Grants Program. No administration has ever included finding for the program in its budget, but Congress has added it each year.

But some proposed cuts do materialize. Last year, the administration proposed, and won, nationwide cuts to the EPA’s State Revolving Loan Fund which provides low-interest loans for wastewater treatment plant upgrades and other water infrastructure improvements. It’s proposing another $200 million, or 22 percent, cut for next year.

And because of a drive to reduce nonmilitary spending to pare down near-record budget deficits, some believe it will become more difficult for Congress to keep Bay-related funding at current levels—much less provide the additional funding needed to help meet restoration goals.

President Bush proposed a record $2.77 trillion budget in February. But most of the spending is for nondiscretionary entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare in which government payments are obligated.

Of the total, $870 billion is for discretionary spending programs which run all the government agencies and programs, from defense to education to job training to environmental programs. While the defense and homeland security portion of the discretionary spending have grown, funding for non-defense programs has been shrinking—from $389 billion in 2005 to $373 billion this year and a proposed $370 billion next year.

That means environmental and natural resource programs face increased competition with programs that support everything from veterans benefits to space exploration and a host of human services.

“Essentially, it is causing this situation of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Charlie Stek, an aide to Sen Paul Sarbanes, D-MD, who has worked on Bay issues for years. “We have gotten to the point where there have been such substantial cuts to domestic discretionary spending that there is not any room anymore to trade off one program for another.”

Overall funding is already shrinking, he noted. While Congress restored most of the Bay-related cuts the administration had proposed a year ago, it had to enact an across the board one-half of 1 percent spending cut for nearly all nonmilitary domestic programs to meet its overall spending goals for this year.

That reduced level then became the baseline for spending in next year’s budget. Factor in inflation, and the amount of “real” buying power is further reduced, Stek noted.

“The ceiling keeps getting lower and lower on the appropriation committees,” he said. “They keep trying to juggle these funds, and the only way they can do so is by doing across the board cuts.”

Here are some Bay-related highlights from the administration’s 2007 proposed budget:

EPA: The base budget for the EPA’s Bay Program Office, would drop $350,000, from $20.75 million to $20.4 million. The office coordinates Chesapeake restoration efforts and provides small amounts of money to states and organizations for cleanup activities.

The president’s budget includes $6 million in new funding for Maryland’s Corsica River Restoration project, which concentrates restoration efforts on a prototype watershed to learn how to effectively reach its clean water goals. At the same time, though, the budget does not include the $6 million that Congress allocated for the targeted watershed program for this year, which supports innovative nutrient reduction programs in the Chesapeake watershed.

The president’s budget, as in the past, included no funding for the Chesapeake Bay Small Watershed Grants Program, which provides small amounts of funding to support locally based restoration and education efforts. Congress provided $2 million for the program in the current year.

The biggest funding hit would come in the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund. The administration would slash the SRF to $688 million next year, down from about $887 million this year and half of its level in 2001.

That would reduce SRF funding for Pennsylvania from $35 million this year to $27.2 million next year, Maryland would go from $21.4 to $16.6 million; and Virginia would go from $13.8 to $10.7 million.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: The administration calls for spending $1.9 million to support NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office, which is the same amount it proposed in its last budget, but significantly less than the $3.5 million ultimately approved by Congress.

It also included no funding for the Bay Watershed Education and Training Program (B-WET) which promotes the Bay Program’s educational goals. Congress provided $3.5 million for the program this year.

But the administration did increase its request for fisheries research funding for the NOAA Office, requesting about $1.2 million for next year, roughly the same as what Congress had approved for the current year. A year ago, the administration had only requested $500,000 for such research.

Once again, though, it did not call for funding blue crab research, including the potential for large-scale hatchery production, which is supported by the office. Congress appropriated $5 million for the current year.

The biggest hit could come in oyster restoration. The administration proposed spending about $842,000 on NOAA’s oyster work in the Bay, just a bit less than it proposed in last year’s budget. But that is significantly less than the $8 million Congress approved for this year. That included $2 million for research on nonnative oysters, $4 million for oyster restoration in Maryland and $2 million for oyster restoration in Virginia.

U.S. Department of Agriculture: The budget would provide $1 billion nationwide for the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Improvement Program, which is the largest farm bill program in the region for implementing nutrient control programs. That’s similar to the level of funding for this year.

The Conservation Security Program, which rewards farmers for installing and maintaining conservation practices, would get a big boost, from $274 million this year to $342 million nationwide in 2007.

Army Corps of Engineers: The Corps’ would get no money for native oyster restoration in the Bay under the administration’s budget; Congress had appropriated $2.25 million this year. The budget also includes no money for Bay grass restoration; Congress provided $500,000 this year.

Also unfunded is a Corps’ Chesapeake Bay Shoreline erosion study, which the administration had supported last year, and Congress provided with about $1 million.

Others: The president’s budget calls for dropping funding for a number of Bay-related programs that were supported by Congress this year. Among them were $1 million for fish passage and wetland restoration work in the Susquehanna watershed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The budget would also not fund the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network, a system of about 150 natural, historic and cultural sites that help to educate visitors about the Bay. Congress provided the network with $1.5 million for this year, but that was down from $2.5 million in 2005.

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About Karl Blankenship

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and Executive Director of Chesapeake Media Service. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Karl Blankenship

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