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Legislature’s irresponsible budget plan slashes front-line protections for public health

MEC President Chris Kolb, second from right, discusses the impact of proposed budget cuts at a press conference Thursday

MEC and our partners at the Michigan League of Conservation Voters released a report Thursday showing that deep budget cuts proposed in Lansing and Washington put at risk essential programs for protecting the Great Lakes, ensuring safe drinking water and cleaning up toxic contamination.

In the short time since we released the report, the state budget picture has come into clearer focus. And it’s worrisome, to say the least.

The report, prepared by Public Sector Consultants, compiles for the first time all the known environmental programs and public health protections threatened by the proposed cuts. President Trump has called for slashing the Environmental Protection Agency budget by nearly a third, while Michigan lawmakers aimed to cut state support for the Department of Environmental Quality by $13 million under a House plan and more than $26 million in the Senate proposal.

The analysis shows that the combination of the Legislature’s planned cuts and the president’s plans to gut federal programs could be disastrous for state-level environmental programs in Michigan. That’s because federal funds make up a significant share of the DEQ’s budget—more than a quarter in the current fiscal year. In 2016 the state received more than $168 million in EPA grants for water infrastructure and environmental protection activities, with the vast majority going to the DEQ—which puts those dollars to work supporting local governments and nonprofit partners like watershed councils, local cleanup groups, researchers and others.  The rest of the federal funds support 200 employees who are responsible for protecting our air, land and water quality.

Just after we released the report, House and Senate leaders held conference committee meetings to finalize an agreement between the two chambers that cuts nearly $10 million from the DEQ budget in 2018. While not as severe as anticipated, it remains an irresponsible budget that does nothing to address serious threats to public health.

For one thing, the proposal counts on a $31 million increase in federal funds flowing to the department, even as the president aims to gut the EPA and Congress—while unlikely to approve cuts as drastic as Trump is proposing—is sharpening its knives to slash environmental spending. That leaves the DEQ vulnerable to a huge deficit and Michigan’s air and water resources at risk.

On top of that, the Legislature’s budget eliminates funding for programs that provide front-line defense for the health and safety of Michigan families.  For example, Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget calls for additional staff and funding to implement the Lead and Copper Rule as part of his praiseworthy plan to make Michigan’s drinking water program the toughest in the country in the wake of the Flint water crisis. But the Legislature’s proposal provides no funding for that important work—a decision that can only be understood as a failure to heed the lessons of the tragedy in Flint and an unwillingness to make the health of their constituents a priority.

Similarly, lawmakers declined to provide the $1.3 million proposed by the governor for an interagency program to address the emerging threat of vapor intrusion, which occurs when poisonous vapors enter buildings at sites where contamination wasn’t cleaned up.  Vapor intrusion has triggered recent evacuations in Grand Rapids and a “suggested relocation” in Petoskey, and tests have found high levels of toxic chemicals in the blood of some people at intrusion sites. There are an estimated 4,000 homes and businesses around the state at risk of vapor intrusion. The Legislature’s failure to address this problem means more Michiganders will likely be poisoned in their homes and workplaces.

Lawmakers also provide no funding to fill a $15 million hole in the DEQ budget for cleaning up toxic contamination. This year the department will, as scheduled, spend the remaining funds from the Clean Michigan Initiative, a bond approved by voters in 1998 to remediate and redevelop contaminated sites. The governor’s budget makes a one-time transfer from the Refined Petroleum Fund to offset the lost bond funding for 2018—only a temporary fix, but a necessary move until sustainable, long-term funding is identified. However, the Legislature’s budget plan means the DEQ will only be able to clean up leaking underground storage tank sites, ignoring plumes of dry-cleaning chemicals and other contamination that the governor’s one-time allocation of $15 million would have addressed. Cleaning up leaking tanks is important, but that doesn’t mean Michigan can afford to ignore other types of contamination that threaten our drinking water and, as MEC Policy Director James Clift told MLive, are more likely to cause vapor intrusion problems.

The Legislature and Gov. Snyder are rushing to continue their six-year streak of passing a final budget agreement in June, even though there’s no official need to pass it until September. With so much at stake, we are urging Michigan’s leaders to slow down and see the big picture. We want them to take the time to understand the serious impacts their decisions will have statewide and pass a budget that prioritizes safe drinking water, healthy communities and clean Great Lakes.

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Photo: MEC President Chris Kolb, second from right, discussed the implications of planned environmental budget cuts at a Thursday press conference.

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