Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Budget Challenges Part I: Will General Assembly Continue Systematic Dismantling Of DEP’s Core Programs?

June 5 is the opening day of this year’s sprint to a final state budget for next fiscal year beginning July 1.  Legislators are facing a combined $3 billion state budget deficit for this year and next just to continue most current programs.
On April 4 House Republicans passed an FY 2017-18 budget-- House Bill 218 (Saylor-R- York)-- which again proposes to make at least a 6 percent across-the-board cut to environmental agencies (and most agencies) for the 14th year in a row.  Their budget also has an $800 million hole without any revenue to fill it.
The Republican budget reduces DEP funding by $8.9 million from the current year (mostly personnel-- $7.3 million), and cuts funding for Conservation Districts-- $376,000, West Nile/Zika Virus Control-- $338,000, the Susquehanna, Delaware and Potomac River Basin Commissions, Ohio River Sanitation Commission and the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
All these new House Republican cuts are on top of a 40 percent cuts in the General Fund monies going to DEP and a 25 percent cut in staff since 2003.  Funding for DEP is now below 1994 levels.
Meanwhile, the General Assembly’s own budget has increased 21 percent in the last 14 years AND they had an $118 million surplus in FY 2015-16.
House Republicans are also apparently content to let DEP raise permit fees to make up for the cuts they make in DEP’s General Fund appropriations.  
DEP this year is pursuing permit fee increases for the Safe Drinking Water, Laboratory Accreditation, Radiation Protection, Noncoal and Coal Mining  Programs, Air Quality and possibly the Oil and Gas Program to fill widening gaps in its budget.
Unfortunately, permit fee increases only start delivering needed funding two or three years after the need is identified.
At the same time House and Senate Republicans (and Governors) have been cutting DEP’s budget, legislators have complained about why it seems to take longer each year for DEP to process those permits.
Legislators have refused to take any responsibility for causing the permit delays, even though they cut DEP’s staff by 25 percent.
Meanwhile, DEP has, within its limited resources, major initiatives underway to improve its permitting processes, including ePermitting, Regional Permit Coordination, shifting permit work between regions and addressing the fact that 60 to 80 percent of the 30,000 applications it receives from engineers and consultants are incomplete or have deficiencies.
Still, legislators are threatening to cut DEP’s budget more until they perform.  It’s like saying, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” There is no right answer that will satisfy some legislators.
The proposed House Republican budget also does nothing to address the fact DEP does not have the resources to meet minimum federal requirements in the Safe Drinking Water, Air Quality, Surface Mining and other federal programs.  
In his budget testimony, DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell pointed to the need to deal with other budget-related issues, like--
-- Reauthorizing the $2/ton recycling fee that is due to expire in 2020. The Senate now has Senate Bill 646 (Killion-R-Delaware) on its Calendar to eliminate the sunset date;
-- Funding the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Program lost its main revenue source when the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax was phased out and now has no adequate replacement funding sources; and
-- Reauthorizing the Storage Tank Environmental Cleanup and Pollution Prevention Programs. The Senate now has Senate Bill 649 (Yudichak-D-Luzerne) on its Calendar to fill a funding gap in the Storage Tank Program and authorize the cleanup and prevention programs.
DCNR’s budget did not escape the cuts either.  House Republicans cut DCNR’s budget by $2.8 million and Heritage Parks is reduced by $625,000.  Republicans, like Democrats, also rely on the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to finance state park and forest operations.  
DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn said the House Republican budget would deal a “crippling blow” to the agency and lead to layoffs.
House Republicans did propose what they called an “Endowment Fund” that was described verbally as a new Fund that would do everything in Gov. Wolf’s proposed $387.4 million bond issue to fund operating costs and provide funding for several environmental programs and State Police fee proposal.  
Since April 4 there have been no new details about what would actually be included in this Endowment Fund or how it would be funded.  And none appear to be forthcoming outside of Senate-House budget negotiations.
Meanwhile, the Senate has yet to put any budget proposal on the table.
At the same time the General Assembly is busily cutting state funds to DEP and other state agencies, the Trump Administration is proposing 30 and 40 percent cuts in FY 2018 federal grants designed to pay states for the administration of federal environmental programs.
DEP receives 30 percent of its funding from the federal government, 50 percent from fees and some fines and 20 percent from the state General Fund.
As noted, 13 years of state budget cuts have resulted in many basic environmental programs not having the resources to meet minimum federal program requirements.  Cuts from the federal side would only hollow them out further.
DEP has already been forced to do triage on its programs to determine which functions will live and which will die.  More cuts simply mean permit reviews get slower and more things DEP used to do won’t get done anymore.
It’s interesting how legislators always seem to come down hard on DEP, when the Department of Labor and Industry spent $170 million with one computer contractor for a project that didn’t work, the State Police spent $800 million on a statewide radio system that still doesn’t work and the Department of Education spent over $1 billion since 2008 on private education testing where the result is not necessary to receive a high school diploma.
And the General Assembly cut DEP’s budget by 40 percent and staff by 25 percent and complains it can’t get permits out on time?
The General Assembly and Governors also cut project funding to the Growing Greener Program by 75 percent in spite of the fact that it gets real results on the ground like hundreds of local parks and trail projects, conserved more than 80,000 acres of threatened open space, and restored hundreds of miles of streams and waterways, protected more than 78,000 acres of farmland, restored more than 1,600 acres of abandoned mine land, and helped reduce flooding and water pollution through 400 watershed protection projects and more than 100 drinking and wastewater treatment improvements.
I’ve learned one thing being around state environmental programs for 40 years, legislators and Governor’s can do anything they want to do in the budget, even in the leanest of budget years, with the right leadership.
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