A new study shows that environmental spending in Virginia is at its lowest rate since 1984, if calculated as a percentage of the overall state budget.

The environmental study, prepared by a consultant for the League of Conservation Voters, found that Virginia in fiscal 2004 will spend about one-sixth of 1 percent of the state budget on the environment. That equates to about $244 million, more than half of which comes from user fees and federal grants, not state tax dollars.

Environmental spending by neighboring states in fiscal year 2000 showed West Virginia at 2 percent of its overall budget; Tennessee at 1.36 percent; Maryland, 2.26 percent; North Carolina, 1.92 percent; and Pennsylvania, 1.31 percent.

Nationally, Virginia spends about half of what other states do on natural resources and parks, said James J. Regimbal Jr., who conducted the study as the principal in the consulting firm Fiscal Analytics LLC.
Regimbal, a former budget analyst for the state Senate Finance Committee, was selected to conduct the study in part because of his lack of personal ties to environmental issues.

“When we first asked him to look at this situation, he was like, ‘C’mon, things aren't that bad,’” said Helen Tansey Lang, Virginia director of the League of Conservation Voters. “But by the end, he was like, ‘You’re right; things are this bad.’”

Last October, Gov. Mark Warner unveiled $858 million in spending cuts that led to the loss of dozens of jobs in scientific and conservation agencies. Cuts to environmental programs included more than $2 million for fighting water pollution, $800,000 for rebuilding oyster stocks and $300,000 for monitoring toxicity in the Elizabeth River in southeastern Virginia. More cuts were announced in December.

“We’re into the marrow now; there’s no more fat to be cut from the bone,” said Patti Jackson, executive director of the James River Association, an environmental group.

Environmentalists have suggested higher permit fees for businesses and industries that emit pollutants, a state garbage fee or higher tobacco taxes, which could help programs combating air pollution and health problems linked to breathing dirty air.

Natural Resources Secretary W. Tayloe Murphy Jr. said Governor Warner has no immediate plans to seek new money for environmental programs, though he did not rule out an attempt after the General Assembly convened in January. Murphy said Warner is determined to protect core programs to prevent pollution and conserve land.