The budget assault on the environment

By: - April 14, 2011 12:34 pm

The more you consider the budget proposals released by House Republicans this week, the more it is clear that they are not just designed to address the shortfall and balance the budget this year.

They are part of a deliberate ideological strategy to overhaul and dismantle state government using the budget problems as an excuse. Nowhere is this more evident that in the budget recommendations of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural and Economic Resources.

The proposals call for a 25 percent cut in the agencies under the committee’s purview, most of it from programs that protect the environment, preserve public land, and make sure our drinking water is safe.

The House budget would make staggering cuts to regional offices of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, laying off as many 96 full time workers in one office. The cuts would weaken water quality inspection and enforcement and make it much more difficult to identify and monitor sites contaminated with toxins.

The massive cuts and layoffs would also throw much of the state’s environmental permitting process into chaos. That not only means less protection of the water, air, and land across the state, it means that companies seeking permits will be frustrated by long delays.

The budget transfers the Division of Forest Resources to the Department of Agriculture, though it’s not clear how that actually saves any money.

That’s not the point of course. It would mean that the regulation of the state’s forests would move from a department interested in preservation to one focused on agribusiness and production.

The House budget would raid both the Park and Recreation Trust Fund and Natural Heritage Trust Fund that pay for land acquisitions to keep precious land resources available for public use and enjoyment.

The money from the funds would be redirected to pay for operating costs of the agency. That means no new money to protect land from development, just like the developers want it.

The Clean Water Management Trust Fund is slashed from $100 million to $10 million. That fund pays for state and local projects that clean up polluted waters and protect water sources facing threats of contamination. Local governments are one of the most common partners of the trust fund so the deep cut hurts their water protection efforts too.

The Republicans keep saying that the cuts have to be made, that the state is broke. That’s not true of course. Legislative leaders could simply choose to leave current tax rates the same instead of ending the 2009 temporary tax increases.

That would mean roughly $1.4 billion more in revenue. There’d be no fiscal need to dismantle environmental protections, not to mention crippling the university system and slashing nationally recognized preschool programs.

But the fiscal need isn’t the real driving force here. It’s just a convenient excuse to significantly shrink government and disassemble the state’s regulatory structure that developers and corporate interests have long railed against.

The budget is not the only assault on environmental protections. Lawmakers have already passed a bill making it virtually impossible to adopt any new regulations and a special committee is working on a plan to eliminate some of the rules already in place.

Republicans have also introduced legislation to dismantle the Department of Environment and Natural Resources by statute and shift many of its responsibilities to other agencies less equipped to handle them.

But for now the gravest threat to public health and the environment is the House budget, as the rush to the ideological and dangerous right continues.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066