EPA

Budget proposal axes 'multipurpose' grants for states, tribes

Only two months ago, Congress carved out a $21 million initiative within U.S. EPA's budget to help states and tribes implement environmental programs.

The Obama administration now wants to kill it.

"EPA continues to examine its programs to find those that have served their purpose and accomplished their mission," the agency said in a document yesterday outlining its rationale for zeroing out money in various corners of its requested fiscal 2017 budget.

In this case, however, the new "multipurpose" grant program has yet to get off the ground.

"Not a single dollar has been distributed and no formula exists for doing so," Alexandra Dunn, executive director and general counsel at the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), said in an interview.

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The council, which represents the heads of state environmental agencies, has been pressing lawmakers for more flexibility in tapping federal dollars. While the $21 million in question represents a sliver of environmental spending this year, it offers states a rare opportunity to tailor funding to priorities of their choosing in consultation with EPA, Dunn said.

In an email, EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison called the multipurpose program "a helpful addition" this year to grant funding that is otherwise flat. But in fiscal 2017, Harrison said, the agency "is requesting significant increases in several areas -- water, air, tribal, environmental information -- which will allow states to fund their highest priorities directly as part of these core grants."

In the budget draft, the agency seeks to pare total state and tribal assistance grants from about $3.5 billion this year to $3.3 billion. Other programs on the chopping block are those for water quality research and beach protection, with some of the savings routed to grants for public water system supervision and air quality management.

Welcoming the latter proposal was Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. In a statement, he said the proposed $40 million increase would help stem the deterioration of the nation's air pollution monitoring network and aid in implementation of air toxics programs.

In an email to E&E Daily, Becker added that the organization supports the survival of the multipurpose program as long as it's not at the expense of other state air pollution control grants.

Congress created the program in the fiscal 2016 omnibus appropriations bill passed in December. It's unclear who added the money; in a report accompanying the bill, lawmakers said it would allow states and tribes the flexibility to steer resources to "the implementation of high-priority activities, including the processing of permits, which complement programs under established environmental statutes."

Typically, when EPA gets a budget increase for state programs, it hands over the money with strings attached, Dunn said.

Such "directed funding" undercuts "state flexibility and needed support for ongoing everyday implementation of the nation's environmental laws," Oregon environmental chief Dick Pedersen told the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee last March. A spokesman for subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Pedersen is a past ECOS president. In a letter last month, current President Martha Rudolph of Colorado told EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy that states were committed to showing the value of teamwork in making sure that the $21 million is spent on federal goals while addressing "the unique needs and priorities of individual states" (Greenwire, Jan. 15).

EPA officials are still hammering out a framework for doling out the money. In a news release yesterday, Dunn signaled that ECOS will work with the agency and Congress in hopes that the first year of funding is not also the last.

Twitter: @SeanatGreenwire Email: sreilly@eenews.net

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