The Bush administration in February proposed a budget which, as far as the Bay is concerned, could be considered:

  • a status quo document in which the administration calls for funding Chesapeake-related programs at levels similar to those it supported in last year’s request, or
  • a spending plan that would sharply cut Bay funding because it does not include the programs, and dollar amounts, that Congress approved for the current year, and because it would cut several national programs that support Chesapeake restoration goals.

Because Congress has the final word on spending, the actual impact of the budget won’t be known until this fall, when the appropriations bills are finalized that will set spending levels for the 2006 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Although the overall federal budget proposed by the administration is a record $2.6 trillion, it called for a 0.5 percent cut for non-defense or homeland security discretionary spending. That is a $389 billion bundle of programs that covers everything from the environment to NASA, from highways to housing, from law enforcement to farm programs.

If Congress sticks with the overall spending levels proposed by the White House—which many consider likely—the give-and-take in negotiations among Appropriations Committee members in the House and Senate will determine how Bay-related initiatives fare. But the tight budget may not only hinder efforts to secure large additional federal support for the Bay cleanup, as the states are seeking, it may also complicate efforts to keep existing programs.

“I honestly think this is going to be the most difficult year to even try to restore to last year’s levels a lot of these small programs, much less undertake new initiatives,” said Charlie Stek, an aide to Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-MD.

The president’s budget proposal was very similar to his 2005 budget request, in that it sought funding for the same Bay programs the administration has supported in the past, and generally at similar levels.

It asked for $20.9 million for the EPA’s Bay Program Office, which coordinates Chesapeake restoration efforts and provides small amounts of money to states and organizations for cleanup activities. That was $100,000 more than Congress appropriated last year, and is the most ever proposed for the Bay office by any administration.

But in many cases, the administration's request for programs is significantly less than what Congress approved last year. For instance:

  • It calls for spending $1.9 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office, a drop from the the $2 million requested in the budget last year, and significantly less than the $3.5 million approved by Congress.
  • It calls for $850,000 to support NOAA’s native oyster restoration work—the same as last year—but far short of the $4 million Congress approved.
  • It called for $500,000 for NOAA to research multispecies fisheries interactions in the Bay, the same as last year, and the same level funded by Congress.
  • It proposes $950,000 to support U.S. Forest Service activities in the Bay watershed, down from a request of $1 million last year, and considerably less than the $1.23 million Congress approved.

The main cuts in the budget proposal are to programs known as “earmarks,” in which members of Congress set aside specific amounts of money for certain programs.

Bay region lawmakers have been successful in adding earmarks that support Chesapeake restoration efforts over the years. But presidents typically do not include those earmarks in their own budget requests, which mean members of Congress have to fight for those programs each year. Some of the earmarks that Congress added for the current year, but are not in the president’s 2006 budget, include:

  • $2 million for the Bay Program’s Small Watershed Grants Program, which makes small amounts of money to watershed groups and local governments for Bay-related activities.
  • $2.5 million for NOAA’s Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) initiative, which promotes the Bay Program’s education goals.
  • $2 million for NOAA-sponsored research on the Asian oyster C. ariakensis.
  • $2.5 million for the the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network.
  • $3 million in both Maryland and Virginia for the Army Corps of Engineers to support native oyster restoration projects.
  • $1 million for the Army Corps of Engineers to support the restoration of underwater grass beds.

Potentially more problematic for Bay restoration efforts, though, would be cuts the administration has proposed for national programs that provide most of the federal money supporting Chesapeake restoration programs, such as the Farm Bill and the EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund.

The budget proposed slashing the loan fund from $1 billion this year to $730 million in 2006. The fund is used to help states make low-interest loans to local governments that need to upgrade infrastructure, such as wastewater treatment plants. The proposed cut would cost Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia a combined $32.2 million.

While overall Farm Bill conservation spending would increase in the president’s budget, it would not grow to the levels called for in the 2002 Farm Bill, and some key programs to support nutrient reduction efforts in the Bay region would get cuts.

An analysis by the nonprofit Midwest-Northeast Institute indicates that funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, one of the most important farm conservation programs for Bay nutrient reduction efforts, would decline by 1.7 percent to $1 billion nationwide next year. Under the Farm Bill, it had been scheduled to get $1.2 billion this year.

In addition, the Farmland Protection Program would get a 25 percent cut from this year’s level, to $84 million; the Farm Bill called for it to receive $100 million.

Some smaller programs fared better. The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program would increase $13 million nationwide to $60 million, but still $25 million less than what was called for in the Farm Bill.

The Conservation Security Program, which rewards farmers who maintain conservation practices, would get a 35.6 percent boost to $274 million, but remains well below the uncapped entitlement program called for in the Farm Bill to spur ongoing conservation action.

Some Farm Bill cuts could help the environment, though. The president’s budget would reduce subsidies for commodity crops, which can spur farmers to grow crops on marginal lands, causing erosion and water pollution.

The budget would reduce funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program that uses offshore oil lease royalties to help state and federal agencies pay for land acquisitions, park improvements and other conservation initiatives. The program, authorized by law to spend $900 million a year, would be cut $125 million to $680 million, and would eliminate all support for state land acquisitions. Environmental groups say much of the rest of the money is being used to pay for programs that were not intended to be supported by the fund.

Steven Brown, executive director of the Environmental Council of the States, a nonpartisan association of state environmental agency leaders, noted that most of the funding cuts, particularly within the EPA, are in programs that send money to the states.

The overall effect of the budget, if approved as proposed by the president, would be to shift more of the burden for shouldering environmental programs to state governments—the opposite of what Bay region governors have called for.

Brown predicted that if the budget were to pass as proposed, some state-run environmental programs would be cut, enforcement actions would drop, the backlog of permits would increase, and new environmental regulations would be delayed. “EPA and the president are asking states to take more than all of the proposed cut,” he said

The extent to which the administration’s proposals are reversed depends on how the appropriations process plays out over the next six to seven months.

Appropriations bills are written by House and Senate subcommittees, each with jurisdiction over a group of agencies. EPA’s budget, for instance, in the past was dealt with by a subcommittee that also handled NASA, Veteran’s Affairs, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Typically, congressional leaders assign a budget cap for each subcommittee. If a member wants to restore money for a program, he may have to take it from another to stay within the subcommittee’s cap.

Last year, for instance, when $300 million was requested to support a NASA project to send a man to Mars, the loser was the EPA’s State Revolving Loan Fund, which provides money for low-interest loans for such things as wastewater treatment plant upgrades. That funding shift cut the fund from $1.3 billion to $1 billion nationwide, costing the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia a combined total of $22 million this year.

The appropriations process may be even more complex this year. The House has reorganized its 13 appropriations subcommittees into 10, and the Senate is considering whether to do the same. In many cases, budget staffers who have worked on funding issues that helped the Bay will be doing different jobs.

As part of the reorganization, the EPA would be in the same subcommittee as the Department of Interior—an arrangement that would place EPA’s environmental protection programs in competition with the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which are part of Interior.