Hyper-focus on Washington threatens Great Lakes restoration
Lobbying Washington for money is a risky game. It can make a trip to Las Vegas seem a good bet. Here’s what I mean:
Within 24 hours this week there were two events that took support for the Great Lakes in opposite directions when it comes to securing federal dollars.
Representative Dave Joyce of Ohio held a high profile press conference to announce a $600 million piece of legislation to continue the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Similar legislation had been introduced in the Senate. Joyce is a Republican whose district borders Lake Erie.
But here’s a key point. Joyce’s bill – like the Senate version – is authorization legislation, the easy part. It doesn’t provide funding. That comes from annual appropriation legislation and that’s headed in a different direction.
At the same time a House appropriations subcommittee voted to reduce funding for Great Lakes restoration from the current $285 million level to $60 million.
What’s up? How could proposed legislation coming out of the same body – the U.S. House of Representatives – in the same week be so disparate?
That’s how Washington works now and is likely to for the near term. The old get along process is no longer viable. We live in an era where budget reduction messages are coming from both political parties. The magnitude of the cut depends on the party with the most leverage and right now fiscal conservatives are driving the budget discussion.
As much as some believe our beloved Great Lakes should be immune from the process, they aren’t.
Reaction was quick from the Healing Our Waters group, the 100+ member not-for-profit coalition whose job is to lobby for federal funding for the Great Lakes.
“U.S. House Bill Eviscerates Great Lakes Funding” read the headline on a press release from the coalition.
Coalition campaign director Todd Ambs reached into the talking-point playbook and repeated the same message oft heard anytime there has been a hint of a reduction in funding for the Great Lakes.
“Slashing successful Great Lakes programs will not save the nation one penny. It will only cost taxpayers more, because projects will only become more difficult and expensive the longer we wait,” he said.
House appropriators have long-heard that message and have moved past it perhaps seeing it as out of touch with budget realities. They feel obligated to cut discretionary spending for programs like the Great Lakes to balance the budget and reduce the deficit.
The Healing Our Waters Coalition, claiming broad bi-partisan support for the Great Lakes in Washington, vowed to lean on Great Lakes “champions” in Congress to have the funding restored.
It’s too early in the budget process to know how this will end. President Barack Obama put $300 million in his budget request for the Great Lakes and the Senate’s number is likely to align with the president’s. But this is Washington in an era where cutting the budget is seen as a badge of honor in the U.S. House so it will play out in the political arena.
Should any amount even close to $60 million hold it would be a blow to Great Lakes restoration. The biggest impact would be on cleanup of the legacy polluted sites that dot the region, the area where the federal initiative has made real progress with more desperately needed.
The work is beyond the capacity of state and local governments and a federal role is needed. There’s a direct positive environmental and economic impact to be gained by removing legacy pollutants from places liked Michigan’s Rouge River, the Buffalo River in New York and dozens of other sites in the region.
That program could make significant progress with $150 million annually. There is no basis even in a politically-charged budget fight to cut funding for cleanup of those toxic sites.
But beyond the legacy sites the restoration initiative becomes harder to defend.
It contains a number of soft and politically motivated projects that detract from the intent of the initiative. That’s not a surprise I guess as it comes with the politics and largesse inherent in federal programs.
It takes more than money
Harmful algae blooms are the current poster child for treating the lakes badly but that’s not a money issue. The fix there is to get agriculture to voluntarily comply with best practices to control runoff or to regulate farmers. It remains a question if either will happen.
Dumping sewage into the Great Lakes during heavy rain events is another area where House appropriators want big cuts. But that program by design was never part of the restoration initiative and even the president’s proposed budget took a whack at that pot of money.
That leaves the federal fight against Asian carp, which has been funded by the restoration initiative though it wasn’t part of the original program. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where even the most zealous budget hawk in the House wouldn’t find a way to fund the carp fight. Who would want Asian carp in the Great Lakes on their resume?
The current budget dustup illustrates a flaw in the restoration plan and I wrote about it a year ago.
Restoration has to be about more than the money.
Securing millions – billions – of federal dollars for the Great Lakes will be a budget issue for the foreseeable future. There will be years of success – as in the period between 2010-2012 – and years of declining revenue, which is where we are now. But it will always be cyclical and the trend line now is down.
What’s the plan for the down years?
Or a full court press on agriculture to control runoff so Lake Erie doesn’t continue to decline and take a big chunk of northern Ohio’s tourist economy with it?
The beauty of taking on those challenges is they don’t require massive amounts of money. It takes the will to slug it out in the political trenches and at the state level where some of those congressional Great Lakes “champions” could lend a hand.
Not every big program to restore and protect the Great Lakes needs to involve lining up at the federal trough for money.
To follow that singular track is akin to playing only offense in your favorite team sport but having no plan for when your offense sputters, which it inevitably will.
That makes about as much sense as taking a trip to Las Vegas hoping to fund your kid’s college education. There has to be more than one path.
A path that is less reliant on the vagaries and swings of Washington politics.