State Legislatures face Vexing Budget Issues for Environmental Policy

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Fracking, renewable energy, sewage overflows, pollution trading, oysters, cownose rays. These contentious topics, and more — some with implications for the health of the Chesapeake Bay — awaited legislators in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia as they returned to work in this month.

Each state has a slightly different menu of environmental legislation to consider. But funding — or the lack thereof — for Bay restoration efforts looms as a common hurdle for lawmakers in Annapolis, Harrisburg and Richmond. The three key Bay watershed states face revenue shortfalls ranging from $400 million to $1.7 billion each, and spending cuts appear likely in the near term to close those gaps.

Environmental activists worry that if Bay-related programs and projects are not spared, the restoration effort could lose steam at a critical juncture. The “pollution diet” imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is due for reassessment this year, and the new president is far less likely than his predecessor to play an assertive federal role in pressing the states to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake.

As a result, the Bay cleanup may be more dependent than ever on what the states do. But with one possible exception, they seem headed toward yet another round of belt-tightening.

Maryland must find a way to make up a revenue shortfall of about $400 million for the next fiscal year — though budget forecasters are warning that state coffers may be short a combined $800 million over the next two years.

While acknowledging that spending has to be cut somewhere, Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, points out that state environment and natural resources agencies are already overstretched. “Any law is only as good as the implementation,” she says. “So we need to take a critical look at the budget in terms of staffing and enforcement.”

Virginia officials likewise confront a revenue gap of nearly $800 million over the next two years, under the state’s biennial budgeting process. Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s budget proposal for 2018 envisions eliminating the projected deficit through a combination of “saving actions,” improving revenues and some fund transfers.

But conservation funding may take a hit if McAuliffe’s savings are approved. The governor’s 2018 budget proposal includes about $10 million to pay for the installation of pollution-preventing best management practices on farms, down from the previous appropriation of $61.7 million. And there’s no money proposed for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, which gives matching grants to local communities for projects to curb polluted runoff.

“Despite a difficult budget situation, it is disappointing to see any budget that rolls back investments in Virginia’s farms and localities,” says Rebecca LaPrell, Virginia director of the Bay Foundation. She argues that “stable funding is crucial for the successful restoration of Virginia’s rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay.”

Del. Scott Lingamfelter, a member of Virginia’s delegation on the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory panel that represents the legislatures of the three states, shares the CBF’s concern and vowed to work with other lawmakers to maintain funding for farm best management practices. “We’ve made tremendous progress in that area, particularly around livestock stream exclusion,” says Lingamfelter, a Republican representing parts of Fauquier and Prince William counties in Northern Virginia. “That’s an important strategy for us to follow.”

Pennsylvania faces a $600 million budget shortfall it must deal with in the current budget year, and a projected revenue deficit of $1.7 billion as it plans for the next year. Gov. Tom Wolf has said he intends to take care of those yawning fiscal gaps through spending cuts and efficiency moves. After trying without success in his first two years to get the GOP-dominated legislature to approve income or sales tax increases to close chronic deficits, the Democratic governor has sworn off a third attempt — though he still wants a tax on the Marcellus Shale gas industry.

In mid-December, Wolf made his first round of cuts worth $100 million, eliminating thousands of vacant state government jobs — including more than 400 positions in the departments of Environmental Protection, and Conservation and Natural Resources. The DEP budget is 40 percent smaller now than it was 14 years ago, according to David Hess, who was then the DEP secretary and is now a political consultant in Harrisburg.

But there’s hope in some quarters that Pennsylvania lawmakers may be finally moving to break from years of cost-cutting. A bipartisan group of Pennsylvania lawmakers this month renewed a push to raise environmental cleanup funds through a new fee on large water users. The five Pennsylvania lawmakers on the Chesapeake Bay Commission — four Republicans and one Democrat — sent a letter Tuesday to their colleagues in the House and Senate outlining the need for a cleanup and advocating the water fee as a remedy. The proposed fee — 1/100th of a cent per gallon on all withdrawals exceeding 10,000 gallons per day, and 1/10th of a cent per gallon for all consumptive uses of more than 10,000 gallons per day — would raise an estimated $245 million annually, proponents say.

“Clean water is fundamental to public health and our economy,” the lawmakers wrote. “Unfortunately, almost one quarter of Pennsylvania’s streams and rivers are not safe for either drinking, swimming, fishing or aquatic life.”

The letter accompanied a report, titled “Water Rich & Water Wise,” which lays out the extent of the state’s pollution woes and makes the case for levying the water use fee to fund the cleanup. The money would be distributed statewide to help with stream and river cleanups in the Susquehanna, Ohio, Gennesee, Delaware, Erie and Potomac watersheds.

Water fee legislation was first introduced last year by Sen. Richard Alloway, R-Franklin, and by Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster. The measures have drawn support from legislative leaders, including Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

It’s going to be challenging, Alloway says, to shepherd a dedicated water fee measure through the legislature amid the state’s fiscal woes. But he believes there is sufficient support to pass it if an agreement can be hammered out on how to raise and spend the funds.

Here, state by state, are some of the key issues and challenges facing lawmakers and environmental policy officials:

MARYLAND

Fracking: A joint legislative committee has put a hold on a proposed regulation from the Hogan administration that would permit natural gas drilling in Maryland using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Activists who contend fracking poses unacceptable risks to human health, air, water and the global climate want a permanent moratorium instead.

An EPA report last year concluded that drilling activity in other states has resulted in well contamination and surface water pollution. Gov. Larry Hogan has said he favors gas extraction if it can be done safely, contending it would provide a boost to economically depressed Western Maryland. Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles asserted that the rules his department drew up last year offer a “platinum” level of safeguards for public health and the environment.

Renewable Energy: Hogan has outlined an environmental agenda for the legislative session that features a proposal to invest $41 million in renewable energy projects, increase financial incentives for buying electric vehicles and underwrite a “green energy institute” to attract private investment and commercialize clean energy in the state.

Before lawmakers deal with those, though, they’re likely to vote on whether to override Hogan’s veto last year of a bill that would increase the state’s renewable energy goals. The Clean Energy Jobs bill, which passed by a wide margin, would have committed the state to get 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, up from the current goal of 20 percent by 2022.

Hogan, who ran for office on a pledge to lower taxes, criticized the bill as a kind of tax increase on electricity ratepayers, saying they would have to pay more for power generated by wind, solar and other renewable sources.

Lawmakers also face calls to restrict the siting of renewable energy projects. The Maryland Farm Bureau has objected to the placement of large solar arrays on productive croplands on the Eastern Shore and elsewhere, and the Maryland Association of Counties wants to require the state Public Service Commission to consider local wishes in deciding whether to approve such projects.

Pollution Trading: Hogan wants lawmakers to let him divert $10 million from the state’s Bay Restoration Fund to help kick-start the state’s stalled nutrient pollution trading program. The money would be spent on projects aimed at reducing Bay pollution from unregulated sources, such as farm runoff. The reductions would be credited to counties and municipalities so they wouldn’t have to reduce as much nutrient pollution from stormwater runoff and septic systems, two particularly costly and difficult sources of pollution. And the transactions, the first since the state began working on the trading program in 2007, would help create a market for pollution reduction credits that farmers and wastewater treatment plant owners could earn and sell to others needing to reduce their nutrient discharges.

Prost, the Maryland director of the Bay Foundation, said that while many environmental groups support pollution trading in concept as a way to reduce cleanup costs, they have serious questions about the Hogan administration’s plan, especially if localities are given no-cost ways to duck their responsibilities under municipal stormwater permits that require them to reduce polluted runoff.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, part of Maryland’s delegation to the Bay Commission, said state lawmakers have many questions about the proposal. Even if he likes the answers, he’s not keen to take that much money out of the Bay Restoration Fund. “You’re taking money from a fund that was intended for other purposes, upgrading sewage treatment plants,” says Middleton, a Charles County Democrat. “There are a lot of smaller plants that still need upgrading.”

Forest Conservation: Maryland has been losing thousands of acres of forest annually to development, despite a 26-year-old law meant to conserve a land use that helps reduce water pollution. The CBF is calling for legislation to strengthen the state’s Forest Conservation Act, so that every acre cleared would have to be replanted, and that fees developers can pay in lieu of replanting would be increased to provide greater incentives for them to spare woodlands from the bulldozer.

PENNSYVLANIA

Lawn Fertilizer: Pennsylvania may finally join Maryland and Virginia in restricting the content and application of lawn fertilizer. Senator Alloway, who sponsored unsuccessful legislation in the last session, said he’s gotten support from key committee chairmen and has won over opponents from the farming community, who worried that the measure somehow might affect their crop fertilization.

The bill would mirror laws adopted by the Bay watershed’s other two major states in restricting the nitrogen and phosphorus content of lawn food sold in retail stores, and in barring homeowner applications from Nov. 16 to the end of February.

Regulatory Rollback: Environmental advocates say they’re bracing for bills aimed at relaxing or rolling back state laws and regulations. Rep. James R. Santora, R-Delaware County, is expected to re-introduce a bill he sponsored last session to grant developers more leeway from current stream buffer requirements. Another bill that didn’t pass last session but will likely return would let large commercial and industrial businesses opt out of the state’s energy efficiency program.

Matthew Stepp, policy director for the environmental group PennFuture, says advocates fear the legislation could eviscerate a state program that has funded significant reductions in energy demand.

State Amphibian: Pennsylvania high school students are working to officially name the Eastern hellbender, a large, increasingly rare salamander that is an indicator of clean stream health, as the state’s official amphibian. “The hellbender is Pennsylvania’s largest amphibian,” notes Harry Campbell, state director of the CBF. “They’re dwindling, but they’re found in our most pristine waters, and they’re particularly sensitive to sediment pollution.”

VIRGINIA

Pollution Trading: Virginia officials want to tweak the state’s nutrient trading program to ensure that there’s a way to allow for nutrient discharges from new and expanding businesses. The issue came to the fore with the groundbreaking last year for a big new Chinese-owned Vastly paper and fertilizer plant on the James River.

“If the states — Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia — want to continue to grow and prosper, there has to be space for business development,” says Del. Scott Lingamfelter. The Republican lawmaker said it’s a tension built into the enforcement of the Bay pollution diet, known as a total maximum daily load, which sets a limit on how many nutrients can be discharged into the Bay. Environmentalists, though, say they are keeping a wary eye on the issue.

Sewage Overflows: Lingamfelter said that he hopes Virginia lawmakers will join him in seeking more oversight on cities correcting their routine sewer overflows. Environmental advocates and residents are debating the adequacy of Alexandria’s long-term control plan, which would fix three combined sewer outfalls into the Potomac River relatively quickly but leave a fourth in place for years to come.

Oysters: The aquaculture boom has generated friction with waterfront landowners, particularly in the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach, where improving water quality has drawn oyster farmers to one of the state’s busiest waterways. Dredging to maintain navigation channels, once routine, has drawn protest from oyster farmers concerned about siltation. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission attempted to mediate the dispute last year, but failed to forge an acceptable solution.

By Tim Wheeler

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

 

Letters to Editor

  1. Carol Voyles says:

    Thank you for this summary of our current state of environmental affairs, Tim, and for all that you do.

    It is ironic that in the wealthiest nation on earth we must struggle to fund the maintenance our infrastructure, our environment, and our future. We are in this together, aren’t we? And we can see that our efforts are paying off.

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