Posted on October 3, 2019 by Kevin Finto
With apologies to Lefty Frizell, that is a terrible suggestion on how to fund environmental programs. But, we need to figure something out. As environmental lawyers, we spend a lot of effort discussing the substantive and procedure aspects of the statues and regulations that protect the environment, but little time on the appropriations bills that make them work. We are all familiar with environmental regulations that have wide-scope, strict requirements, but inadequate funding for their implementation. This deficiency results in the unintended consequences of providing a false sense of protection to the public and frustration to the regulated community.
The problem is becoming more acute as political-based belt-tightening on environmental issues continues at the Federal level and directly affects budgets of the state environmental agencies, where most of the implementation occurs. The Environmental Council of the States (“ECOS”) reported in 2017 that federal funding of state government programs declined by 2.5 percent between 2013 and 2015. While some states were able to meet the short fall, many states, faced with ever-increasing demands for education, security and social welfare are not keeping up with environmental funding as their economies grow out of the great recession. For FY 2020, EPA proposed a budget decrease of 31 percent. Where this ends up is yet to be seen. On September 26, ECOS sent a letter to EPA Administrator Wheeler, which did not expressly identify budget issues, but demanded a meeting to discuss “serious concern[s] about a number of unilateral actions by U.S. EPA that run counter to the spirit of cooperative federalism and to the appropriate relationship between the federal government and the states who are delegated the authority to implement federal environmental statutes.”
So what do we do? I think three steps might be helpful. First, there needs to be greater focus and participation on the budgetary process to evaluate the need, priority and allocation of available resources rather than simply updating a prior year’s budget. I am suggesting reevaluation from the bottom up of many agency budgets by the regulators, lawmakers, the regulated community and environmental non-governmental organizations. Of particular concern is how agencies can meet basic long-existing requirements such as monitoring environmental quality and training of personnel while dealing with expenses of new requirements related to communicating through social media, data storage and cyber security. The second is to evaluate the efficiency with which the agencies operate and to share best practices. As documented by ECOS, in many instances, state agencies, in particular, have become increasingly efficient as they have had their budgets repeatedly slashed and cuts have been necessary in order to provide the essential services. Third, there needs to be advocacy in Congress and our state legislatures, from relevant stakeholders –government agencies, the regulated community, and environmental non-governmental organizations.
In some states, the latter has already occurred. A good example is VIRGINIAforever, a unique, diverse coalition of businesses, environmental organizations, and outdoor enthusiasts that advocates for increased government funding for water quality improvements, land conservation and improved agency performance and funding across the Commonwealth. It is the only statewide organization that has a primary focus on increasing funding for natural resources protection. This has taken the form of collaborative and very active lobbying for adequate funds in the Virginia General Assembly to promote land conservation and water quality.
VIRGINIAforever representatives meet regularly with agency heads to discuss budgets. It promotes activities to educate lawmakers on the importance of environmental protection and it lobbies for adequate funding. It is in the process of releasing its latest five-year plan to obtain those resources. The group also recognizes those who promote its goals. For example, each year it holds a Bridge Builder dinner honoring those who work with both environmental groups, government agencies and the business community to promote land conservation and water quality. By design, VIRGINIAforever also provides a forum for fostering relationships among those with diverse perspectives on environmental issues. In sum, if we want to promote sound and efficient environmental programs, we need to think not only about the substance and the procedure, but also identify and advocate for the sources of adequate funding.