WASHINGTON — The good news for the Environmental Protection Agency? Last week's congressional budget deal freed up hundreds of millions in extra funding to clean up toxic sites and rebuild crumbling water systems.
The bad news? Even with the last-minute cash, the agency still would get slashed by 26% — more than any other major federal department — under President Trump's 2019 budget proposal.
The proposed cut didn't come as much of a surprise given that the president last year recommended cutting the EPA by 30%, from $8.2 billion to $5.7 billion, as part of his 2018 budget proposal. And, like last year, it's unlikely to go very far on Capitol Hill considering congressional leaders of both parties panned much of the 2018 budget plan.
Democrats were especially critical of the most recent plan.
At a Senate Budget Committee hearing Tuesday with Trump's Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. said the proposal was "cooked up in laboratories of polluters who want absolutely no regulation so they can despoil at will."
Initial 2019 budget documents showed that the administration was preparing to unveil a bigger cut of 34% (down to $5.4 billion) until the budget agreement lawmakers hashed out Friday lifted spending restrictions and authorized more than $400 billion for Defense and other domestic spending.
The final budget released Monday proposed $6.15 billion for EPA thanks to additional money the administration wants redirected for the Superfund program to remediate the nation's worst toxic sites ($327 million) and to help states modernize wastewater and storm water systems ($397 million).
The 11th-hour change reflects EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's priorities to focus more on what he's described as "core mission" priorities such as Superfund and away from President Obama's push to combat climate change.
"This budget ensures that federal funding supports the highest priority national work," the EPA budget said.
Among the budget's most prominent recommendations:
— Slashing state and tribal assistance grants that help carry out a number of federal directives such as monitoring toxic substances and inspecting brownfields. The $597 million the administration proposes for the program is a 45% cut from 2017 funding levels, the same as proposed in last year’s budget.
EPA says the budget would provide flexibility to states who bear a "shared responsibility" for environmental protection. But the Environmental Defense Fund called the budget a vehicle to "dump critical challenges on state taxpayers."
— Imposing a user fee on manufacturers and sellers of household appliances and other electrically powered components to continue the ENERGY STAR Program, which helps consumers determine the energy efficiency of refrigerators, electronics and heating systems. The agency spends $66 million a year which would be replaced by the fee for managing and administering the program.
"There is no need for EPA to administer voluntary partnership and certification programs with taxpayer dollars, given the popularity and significant private benefits these programs provide to industry partners and consumers," the administration said in the budget.
— Funding Superfund at $1.09 billion, or roughly the same as the 2017 budget Obama proposed. The administration last year proposed a 31% cut but the extra funding included in last week's congressional compromise created an opportunity to restore funding for a program Pruitt has prioritized.
— Eliminating more than a dozen climate change programs as part of a continuing effort by the administration to undo many of the Obama-era steps implemented to combat global warming.
— Cutting more than 3,000 positions, or roughly 20% of the EPA's roughly 15,000-strong workforce, as part of an attempt to reorganize and streamline what Trump once derided as the "Employment Prevention Agency."
The EPA budget says that by Sept. 30, the agency will reduce by 50% the number of permitting-related decisions that exceed six months as part of an effort to reduce "unnecessary reporting burdens on the regulated community."
But Natural Resources Defense Council President Rhea Suh slammed the proposed workforce reduction.
"That means fewer people to monitor air and water quality, enforce our laws, and work with lawmakers, local businesses, public advocates, and others to respond to emerging threats," she said. "You don’t strengthen environmental protections by taking the environmental steward off the beat."