The Chesapeake Bay Program and other federal initiatives that could impact the Bay have been targeted for steep cuts in preliminary Trump administration budget plans sent to federal agencies, prompting alarm from conservation groups and lawmakers alike.
According to a report in The Washington Post, a budget blueprint for the 2018 federal fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, would cut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by nearly a quarter, from $8.2 billion to $6.1 billion, and slash its workforce from 15,000 to 12,000.
Included was a massive 93 percent cut — from $73 million to $5 million — to its Bay Program Office, which coordinates the state-federal partnership. The funding supports research, monitoring and modeling efforts, but the lion’s share — 72 percent — goes to states and local governments to support cleanup efforts.
“The proposed reduction in federal investment in Chesapeake Bay would reverse restoration successes,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker. “The EPA role in the cleanup of the Chesapeake is nothing less than fundamental. It’s not just important, it’s critical.”
He noted that a bipartisan group of 17 House members from the Bay watershed last month called on the Trump administration to preserve full funding for the EPA’s Bay efforts, and said he hoped the agency’s new administrator, Scott Pruitt, would support the program.
The budget proposal was developed by the White House Office of Management and Budget, without input from agencies.
During his confirmation hearing, Pruitt said the Bay effort was something that should be a “model” for the nation, and that “EPA plays a leadership role in mediating cross-state air and water pollution.”
Besides the Chesapeake Bay, funding for the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico and Puget Sound were also slated for similarly massive cuts of 90 percent or more.
Outside the EPA, according to published reports, the budget proposal would eliminate the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Grant program, which funds research around the Bay and in other coastal areas across the nation. It would also eliminate funding for NOAA’s coastal management and estuarine reserve programs, which are also active around the Chesapeake.
Also on the cutting board is the Land and Water Conservation Fund, even though new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke supports the program. The fund, which uses royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to purchase public land, has helped protect slices of land around the Bay in recent years.
The OMB in mid-March is to issue a revised budget outline, after getting responses from agencies, with a more detailed budget to follow in early May.
It’s unclear how realistic the OMB’s initial proposed cuts are. After all, Congress has the last say on spending issues.
For instance, the reported EPA proposal would cut air and water grants to states — popular with many lawmakers, regardless of their views about the agency — by 30 percent.
Indeed, last year the House passed a bill with a much smaller EPA cut — about 3 percent. But lawmakers balked at making further reductions, in part because they would have meant cuts to state grants. Even then, the House only approved the measure with 13 votes to spare — and the Senate never bothered to take it up at all.
But one observation is in order. Proposing extreme budget cuts — which may never pass — should not change the “baseline” in terms of how cuts are viewed.
(The Washington Post, for instance, already reported that the National Marine Fisheries Service was “fortunate,” compared to several other NOAA programs because it was only slated for a 5 percent cut.)
A 25 percent cut to the EPA should not suddenly make the 3 percent cut that was too extreme for the Senate last year somehow seem minimal.
Many environmental programs have already had cuts in recent years. The EPA budget is already down from $10.2 billion in 2010. Rep. Mike Simpson, (R-Idaho) who chaired the subcommittee that sets the EPA’s budget, said there’s “not that much in the EPA [budget] for crying out loud.”
Potential cuts should be viewed in that context — their potential for real impacts on public health, safety and environmental quality. Not on a shifting budget baseline.