A few months ago, I recounted the recent history of budget cuts to Maryland environmental agencies and their effect on the state of environmental inspections and enforcement in the state over the last two decades. Fortunately, it appears that an opportunity to change this situation has presented itself to policymakers in Annapolis.
Recently, at the annual November meeting of the legislative Spending Affordability Committee, key lawmakers from the budget committees and House and Senate Leadership heard from the top legislative budget analysts that the state’s fiscal picture finally looks “good.” In fact, for the first time in a decade the state general fund budget is forecasted to be in a structural surplus, not only for the current fiscal year (2016), but the following year (2017) as well. Then this week, we received more good news about the state’s budget. Revenue estimates were revised up again, not only providing a greater cushion for the current and upcoming fiscal year, but extending the estimated structural balance out another year to fiscal 2018. That is great news.
The bad news is that, after digging a bit through the numbers in the 61-page budget briefing provided in November, it is clear that, without a determined effort by the environmental champions in the Maryland House and Senate, the budget for environmental protection and natural resource conservation will continue to suffer, even under a rosier budget outlook. For example, in their baseline forecast of general fund expenditures for the various state agencies, the state budget analysts projected that the “environmental agencies” (the departments of the environment, natural resources, and agriculture combined) are the only group of agencies that are expected see a decline in funding between last year (fiscal 2015) and next year (2017).
To be sure, these agencies and the policies they are tasked with implementing receive financial support from a broad range of sources, from federal funds to special funds (mostly fees and fines). But agencies that must rely on a budget cobbled together by myriad funding sources are inherently vulnerable, especially under an Administration that has been actively slashing the very fees that provide so much support for these agencies’ budgets. A steady and high level of general fund support is crucial to the proper functioning of an agency.
Previously, I explored how counterproductive the budget cuts to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) have been in light of all of the other investments the General Assembly has made to try to finally restore the Bay. Proper enforcement of the laws already on the books and inspections and maintenance of existing facilities are the cheapest and most cost-effective source of pollution reduction. That is why it was so discouraging to see these most recent projections of personnel resources. According to the briefing, MDE and the Department of Natural Resources have among the highest projected turnover rates of all state agencies and MDE has actually held many more vacant positions open than would be needed to meet budgeted personnel expenditures, even with such a high turnover rate. The Spending Affordability Committee heard from the top legislative analyst this week that, under the Hogan Administration, the vacancy rate in many Executive Branch agencies has increased substantially. If left unchanged, the personnel situation at MDE will continue to look very troubling.
Although most of the problems affecting the budget of Maryland’s environment agencies are manifested in the operating budget, the Spending Affordability Committee briefing shows that there are also some troubling signs ahead for the state’s capital funds. Many of the most significant policy victories accomplished by the Maryland General Assembly over the last decade have been in the establishment of funding sources for capital projects, such as the Bay Restoration Fund and the inclusion of annual capital funds within the state’s transportation trust fund to treat stormwater runoff from state highways. But the briefing shows the drastic reductions in capital spending proposed over the next six years. This austerity approach to the capital budget would affect most, if not all, agencies and policy areas, but the briefing shows that environmental projects would be hit particularly hard, receiving 8 percent of general obligation bond proceeds over the next four years, compared with 16 percent over the last four years.
The good news is that the briefing only shows us shadows of budgets to come. There is still time and, as noted above, a golden opportunity to change this situation. Not only is there a rare, favorable fiscal forecast ahead, but there are several upcoming opportunities for the General Assembly (and environmental advocates) to make their voices heard regarding the need for greater staff and resources at MDE and other agencies. For example, MDE is scheduled to begin collecting sizable new fees from concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) permit holders that are remitted to an MDE special fund. It should be made clear that these funds must support greater oversight of CAFO facilities and enforcement of nutrient management plan regulations. Similarly, MDE is very eager to push nutrient trading in Maryland and claims to be interested in proving that all trades will be verified, documented, and fully transparent. MDE must understand that if their nutrient trading system is to be taken seriously, it needs to be accompanied by a sizable complement of inspectors and staff at MDE and the Maryland Department of Agriculture. There will be plenty of opportunities to send a message to the Administration that the days of “doing more with less” must end, and these are opportunities that we cannot allow to slip away.