When President Donald Trump announced his proposed budget, environmentalists across the country gasped at his proposal to dramatically cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency. At the same time, others rejoiced at the prospect of major infrastructure expansion, hoping that America would finally get the quality roads and bridges it deserved. But what do these proposals mean at the state level?
This week, the Environmental Council of States (ECOS) met in Washington, D.C. to discuss environmental protection and infrastructure development in the U.S. and how the various levels of government needed to work together to work with the realities of limited budgets and manpower. The ECOS conference provided a venue for states to discuss concerns and share solutions.
Founded in 1993, ECOS is a national nonprofit, nonpartisan association of state and territorial environmental agency leaders. Funded through both dues as well as federal moneys and private donations, the group meets to try to help coordinate state environmental agencies. Its goal is to improve the capability of state environmental agencies to protect both the environment and public health.
On Thursday, the discussion at the ECOS conference focused on how to best manage cooperation between the Environmental Protection Agency and state governments, and Trump’s proposed infrastructure investment.
Each of the 50 states as well as the District of Columbia and the territory of Puerto Rico has a representative at the ECOS conference. The representatives listened to various panel discussions by figures from federal and state environmental as well as different related industries. Afterwards they met for several closed-door meetings.
Given Trump’s plan to cut EPA spending, the states discussed methods of properly prioritizing resources to ensure that important environmental protection standards were still upheld. ECOS believes that the states should have the ability to make their own decisions, without the EPA coming back later to repeat their work. However, they also acknowledge that some double-checking was likely necessary.
“Where is the avoidance of duplication? Where is duplication appropriate?” asked Robert Perciasepe, former acting administrator of the EPA. “If you look at environmental protection in the United States and only look at what states do or what the federal government does, you won’t get the full picture.”
Instead, he hoped for a solution where states and the EPA could coordinate “so that the right people go to the right places, rather than two people going to the same place.”
The ECOS conference panelists themselves were hesitant to provide too many details on what such coordination would require though. Overall, the group was largely uncertain as to the effect Trump’s proposed slashing of the EPA budget would have.
On the subject of infrastructure spending, on the other hand, the ECOS conference had a far more unified opinion. Representatives from both cities and states emphasized the need for specific changes to infrastructure financing and worried that municipal bonding could be restructured under proposed tax reform.
The topics weren’t perhaps as sexy as new highways, but the speakers stressed how much effect small changes could have on American cities and towns.
“You have to look at the infrastructure discussion writ large in combination with tax reform,” said Quin Shea, vice president of the environment at the Edison Electric Institute. “Tax reform ideas that work really well for a lot of other industries don’t work well for us.”
Raising the tax rate on municipal bonds could threaten an important source of funding for infrastructure repairs at a time when the money is desperately needed. When infrastructure is discussed, most people think of roads and bridges. However, America’s water and sewer systems are aging as well.
Most rely on local municipalities for their maintenance funding. Particularly in rural areas, cities and towns can quickly become overburdened by these costs. There are some 5300 community water systems regulated under the Clean Drinking Water Act. Already many of them are struggling to keep costs down for residents given a limited customer base.
On top of this, EPA regulations can exacerbate the funding problem. Drinking and waste water are treated differently by the federal government. At a local level, municipalities often fund projects on both systems from the same budget. Recently, the EPA has begun cracking down on cities with combined sewer overflow systems, which collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe for transportation to a wastewater treatment facility.
By forcing cities to redesign these systems, the EPA was draining their budgets and at times leaving consumers with much higher bills. However, the municipalities at the ECOS conference often felt that dealing with angry residents was preferable to tussling with the EPA.
“Many of my cities would rather be sued by you guys than by the EPA,” quipped Judy Sheahan of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
As important as the funding is, the permitting process also needs reform.
“What I am focused on is siting and permitting,” said Shea. “These processes have to become simpler at the state and federal level if we want infrastructure development to continue.”
On this topic, states were able to discuss different approaches to solving the same problem. Arkansas, for example, passed new legislation allowing the court system to speedily grant permits. Other states spoke of requirements that permits be reviewed and granted within a particular time frame. Still, representatives from several states pushed back on the idea that bureaucratic reform along could expedite the process. One representative argued that states would be unlikely to maintain a faster permitting process unless they received public grades.