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Spending on State and Local Environment and Interior Programs Spared Big Cuts in Senate Plan

Annapolis, Maryland is located on Chesapeake Bay.

Annapolis, Maryland is located on Chesapeake Bay. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

But there aren’t huge boosts in the appropriations proposal either for programs that are significant for states and localities.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Senate appropriators are seeking to nudge funding slightly upwards for programs that support state and local water infrastructure investments and to maintain the amount of money allotted for payments to counties with tracts of tax-exempt federal land.

Those and other spending proposals that are noteworthy for state and local governments are part of fiscal year 2018 legislation the Senate Appropriations Committee released Monday.

The proposal, called a “chairman’s mark,” outlines about $32.5 billion in spending recommendations for the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and other related agencies.

Oct. 1 marked the start of the 2018 federal fiscal year, but lawmakers passed a short-term funding measure in September to keep the government running through Dec. 8—more or less maintaining fiscal 2017 spending levels for the time being.

House Speaker Paul Ryan indicated last week that another stopgap spending bill may be on the horizon. The full House in September passed a package of 12 annual appropriations bills for fiscal 2018, including one that covers Interior and EPA programs.

The Senate Finance Committee’s Republican leadership touted funding included in the chairman's mark to combat wildfires, and said their plan would also help to address “fire borrowing,” a practice generally seen as problematic for Interior and the Forest Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture.

Democrats, meanwhile, raised concerns that wildfire-related spending provisions in the legislation were accompanied by language that jeopardizes conservation and favors loggers.

Under the appropriations proposal, spending would remain aligned with current levels for EPA’s Superfund programs, which support cleanups at toxic sites, and the agency's Brownfields programs, commonly used to remediate and redevelop contaminated property.

So-called “geographic programs,” which support conservation and restoration efforts in the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay and other major watersheds and bodies of water around the U.S., would also see funding that is approximately on par with fiscal year 2017 amounts.

A pair of significant programs for water and wastewater infrastructure projects is included in Monday’s Senate proposal.

One is EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which would receive $864 million, up from about $863 million in fiscal 2017. The other is the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which under the proposal would see about $1.394 billion, up from $1.393 billion.

The revolving funds help to provide low-cost loans and other financing assistance for water and wastewater projects.

For rural western counties in particular, the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program is a chief intergovernmental concern.

Through the program, the U.S. government makes payments to localities that encompass federal public lands. Because these federal lands cannot be taxed it limits the amount of property that is available to local governments for generating property tax revenue.

County leaders have urged Congress to appropriate $480 million for the program this fiscal year. Instead Senate appropriators recommended $465 million, the same as fiscal 2017.

Appropriations Committee Republicans noted that the chairman’s mark includes $3.6 billion to fight wildland fires. There’s also language GOP lawmakers said would end fire borrowing, making firefighting expenses beyond certain thresholds eligible for disaster assistance.

Fire borrowing refers to when an agency uses up the money it has for fighting wildfires, and is forced to take from other accounts to pay for fire suppression. In some, but not all cases, this might mean using money that would have gone toward wildfire prevention.

Democrats said wildfire funding in the plan was $97 million below the fiscal year 2017 level.

And they said budget changes were linked to revised environmental requirements for forestry projects, rollbacks in restrictions against logging old-growth trees in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, and other provisions they characterized as troublesome from a conservation perspective.

EPA’s Superfund programs check in with about $1.09 billion in the Senate proposal, up a bit from around $1.08 in fiscal 2017.

Funding for Brownfields programs includes $25.5 million under a category known as Environmental Programs and Management, $80 million under State and Tribal Assistance Grants and about $47 million in so-called categorical grants. Each of these amounts matches Brownfields appropriations in fiscal 2017.

Geographic programs would see funding levels edge upwards to around $443 million, from about $435 million, based on the Appropriation Committee’s recommendations.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative would consume $300 million of that sum. Initiatives focused on Lake Champlain, on the border of New York and Vermont, and the Gulf of Mexico would each benefit from $4 million bumps in funding under the Senate appropriations plan.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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