Trump’s budget plan hurts Michigan, Great Lakes cleanup

Melissa Nann Burke, and Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Washington — President Donald Trump revealed his first budget blueprint on Thursday, proposing to eliminate a cleanup program for the Great Lakes Basin, legal aid for the poor, low-income heating assistance and other federal funds that would affect Michigan.

Trump’s budget plan would slash the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by nearly a third, including reductions for the agency’s enforcement and compliance office and ending the $300 million-a-year Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, among other regional efforts. The president's budget director argued the proposal fulfill's Trump's promises to shrink the role of government, trim waste and root out redundant functions.

Democrats quickly criticized the budget blueprint, with some Republicans agreeing on certain programs.

“Trump’s budget is worse than we thought for the Great Lakes,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, who co-chairs the Senate’s Great Lakes Task Force. “We’ve got to make sure this does not pass Congress.”

Bipartisan members of Michigan’s House delegation also vowed to restore the funding to the Great Lakes program.

“In an era where federal spending must be prioritized, I believe the GLRI, which has a history of proven results and strong bipartisan support, should continue to be a national priority,” said Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga of Zeeland, who co-chairs the House Great Lakes Task Force.

Also left out of Trump’s budget are community development grants, which last year delivered at least $111 million to Michigan cities, counties and townships, including nearly $31.4 million to Detroit and more than $30 million for the state, according to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The budget plan, called “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” says the program is “not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results.” Instead, states and localities should be responsible for community and economic development.

The proposed budget cuts make way for a proposed $54 billion increase in military spending.

“We believe the core functions of the EPA can be satisfied within this budget,” said Mick Mulvaney, director of Office of Management and Budget.

The budget blueprint released Thursday covered only the discretionary portion of the budget approved by Congress each year and did not include revenue projections, major policy statements or tackle mandatory spending.

The Department of Homeland Security said Thursday it plans to sustain current funding levels for the U.S. Coast Guard, despite earlier reports that the Coast Guard’s budget would be reduced 12 percent.

Research institutions like the University of Michigan and Michigan State University could feel the impact of a proposed $5.8 billion reduction for National Institute of Health spending to $25.9 billion. And a proposed 21 percent cut for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to $17.9 billion includes staff reductions at USDA county offices.

Michigan’s senior House Republican, Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph, said the budget proposal acknowledges the nation’s “unsustainable” national debt and attempts to begin restoring fiscal responsibility.

“However, I remain deeply concerned about proposed cuts to important domestic programs like the National Institutes of Health and especially to our Great Lakes,” Upton said.

“It’s penny wise but pound foolish. I will continue to work the administration, the appropriate committees and colleagues on both sides of the aisle as we move forward in this process.”

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, called the budget plan "short-sighted and reckless."

"In addition to deep cuts to medical research, job training, affordable housing programs and heating assistance for the poor, the President wants to eliminate all funding to protect the Great Lakes," Kildee said. "With his budget, the president is essentially saying our way of life in Michigan doesn’t matter."

Trump’s proposal could complicate the state budget process in Michigan, which legislators typically complete by mid-June. Several state government departments rely on federal funding and grants that could be axed.

“There’s a lot of concern around the EPA discussion that’s been going on and what potentially could happen to the Great Lakes funding,” said state Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive. “I don’t think the water is Republican or Democrat.”

Also not included in Trump’s plan is support for the home-energy program for low-income households, for which Michigan relies on $175 million in federal funding for its current-year budget. Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal for 2018 anticipates $188 million for the program, which is used to pay for home heating credits, weatherization and crisis intervention.

Snyder’s office said Thursday that it’s too early in the budget process to consider whether the state will need to make up for the hundreds of millions in proposed cuts to federal support.

“The president's proposal is just a request to Congress,” spokeswoman Anna Heaton said. “These are programs that are important to Michiganders, therefore, we know there is strong support among Michigan’s delegation, and we will continue working with them to preserve the funding.”

Michigan legal aid agencies are at risk of losing roughly $10 million a year in grants that they receive from Legal Services Corp., which supports free civil legal aid for low-income clients such as homeless veterans, senior citizens and victims of domestic violence. Trump’s budget plan would eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corp.

Private firms often offer pro bono services, as well, but they rely on the legal aid organization to provide training and mentoring, as well as to screen cases, said Wendy Richards, pro bono counsel at the firm Miller Canfield in Detroit.

“It’s not like the pro bono bar can just take over. It requires a partnership with these agencies,” Richards said.

“There are some individuals that law firms can’t really meet necessarily because they’re located in rural areas far from where law firms are located, or if they have an issue that typically law firms have conflicts with.”

Other independent agencies that would lose funding include the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp., Chemical Safety Board and the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Mulvaney on Thursday defended Trump's decision to eliminate funding for those agencies.

"I put myself in the shoes of that steelworker in Ohio, the coal-mining family in West Virginia, the mother of two in Detroit," Mulvaney said. "Can I really go to those folks, look them in the eye and say, 'Look, I want to take money from you, and I want to give it to the Corporation of Public Broadcasting?' That is a really hard sell."

MSU Vice President for Governmental Affairs Mark A. Burnham said the university is “deeply concerned” about proposed cuts to student aid, the arts and research budgets. He highlighted a nearly $900 million reduction in the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which funds the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams – a physics research center under construction at MSU and projected to create 1,000 permanent jobs.

"Should the cuts come to fruition, the devastation to the research enterprise, college access for deserving students and, thus, the United States’ international competitiveness would be unmatched in modern times,” Burnham said.

Annalise Dobbelstein, a campaign organizer for the group Environment Michigan, criticized the budget plan for failing to address the Flint water crisis or other communities with contaminated drinking water.

“Slashing EPA’s overall budget by more than a third means the agency cannot adequately enforce our clean air and clean water safeguards,” Dobbelstein said in a statement. “It is basically a ‘get out of jail free card’ for polluters.”

Under the plan, the EPA would send 30 percent less money to the states for cleaning up Superfund sites, reducing the program by $330 million, and would reduce by nearly 45 percent programs that transfer grants to local governments – a reduction of $480 million. The proposal also would repeal the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which aimed to curb greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants.

The EPA budget proposal does include $2.3 billion for the State Drinking Water Revolving Funds — a $4 million increase over the 2017 level — that may be used to support infrastructure improvements in communities such as Flint.

The budget also devotes $20 million for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, which is estimated to support financing for $1 billion in direct federal loans for infrastructure projects.

Another proposed cut to funding targets $250 million in grants and programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supporting coastal and marine management, research and education, including the Sea Grant program.

That could hurt the Michigan Sea Grant — a cooperative program of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University that focuses on the protection of the Great Lakes and coastal resources. The program received $1.8 million through NOAA last year and employs 23 people across the state, according to UM.

“Twenty percent of all jobs in Michigan, billions of dollars spent on boating, fishing and other recreation, as well as our quality of life all depend on the Great Lakes and their ecosystem,” James Diana, director of Michigan Sea Grant and a professor at the UM School of Natural Resources and Environment, said in a statement.

“A small investment in Michigan Sea Grant is magnified many times by the wise decisions made by citizens with the aid of our education, outreach and research on the Great Lakes.”

The elimination of Great Lakes Restoration Initiative could mean thousands of jobs losses across the region, predicted UM professor Bradley J. Cardinale, who directs the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research.

“Not just researchers but environmental consulting firms, university employees and on-the-ground contract employees who are driving back hoes,” said Cardinale, an ecologist.

His institute and NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor – which together employ 120 people – would both be in jeopardy of shutting down, as they rely largely on funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, he said.

That would mean the loss of programs such as a warning system that monitors harmful algal blooms in the lakes and alerts officials in places like Toledo, Ohio, when to shut down intake pipes to keep toxins out of the public water supply.

“It’s shortsighted. Partly, we’ve got an issue of what I feel is a broken promise. Here’s the rust-belt states that have elected Trump largely on the promise of jobs and job creation, and this is going to do exactly the opposite,” Cardinale said. “It’s going to put a lot of people out of work.”

John Mozena of the free market-oriented Mackinac Center for Public Policy said the budget plan is the first “meaningful statement by a president in decades” on the unbalanced relationship between the federal government and the states.

“Many of the changes that are being critiqued as ‘cuts’ are in fact a return of authority and responsibility on specified topics to state governments, where they should be for practical and constitutional reasons,” Mozena said.

“It’s also interesting to see programs being proposed for elimination for lack of evidence of value to the people they serve, which often means they’re special-interest handouts like the community development block grants.”

Barry Rabe, professor at the UM Ford School of Public Policy and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Trump’s plan could prove to be a test of what states do if the federal government lifts previous mandates.

“Do states use that authority to a so-called ‘race to the top?’ Or do they race to the bottom and reduce their oversight because of pressure from regulated industries that would appreciate a freer hand?” said Rabe, who chairs the EPA’s Assumable Waters Advisory Board.

“If this budget or anything close to it is adopted, along with some of the possible regulatory changes, we really test what Michigan and other states would do with that new latitude.”