Trump budget slashes funding for Great Lakes cleanup

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — President Donald Trump revealed his budget proposal on Monday, proposing to cut funding for a cleanup program for the Great Lakes region by 90 percent from $300 million to $30 million next year.

It also requests billions for the military and for fighting the opioid epidemic, including $625 million for states responding to the crisis, while scaling back spending on food stamps, Medicaid — the health program for the poor, disabled and elderly — as well as crop insurance costs and low-income heating assistance.

Trump’s proposal would reduce the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by nearly $3 billion, or 34 percent from 2017 levels, including slashing the budget for the $300 million-a-year Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which enjoys strong bipartisan support in Michigan and other Great Lakes states.

A budget summary provided by the White House says the spending plan “enhances” basin-wide monitoring of “significant watersheds,” including the freshwater lakes, to aid decision-making on issues such as algal blooms and invasive species management, while “recognizing that the primary responsibility for local ecosystem restoration rests with states and local groups.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, who co-chairs the Great Lakes Task Force, said that’s “very bad news” for the GLRI program. She and other members of the Michigan delegation pledged Monday to fight for full funding.

“I am pretty shocked after the major bipartisan effort that we had, and the push-back was so hard after they zeroed out the money last year,” Stabenow told The Detroit News.

The Trump administration last year proposed effectively ending federal support for the program — something that Congress rejected when it fully funded the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative with $300 million for 2018.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, also expressed disappointment.

“Michigan deserves better than this. The health of our Great Lakes must be a higher priority,” Upton said in a statement.

“It’s clear that when it comes to the Great Lakes, our priorities are at odds with the administration.”

Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, said he would work with colleagues to fully fund the GLRI, which “lays a leading role in preserving and restoring the Great Lakes ecology while strengthening the Great Lakes economy.”

“Congress makes the determination regarding which federal programs will be funded,” said Huizenga, co-chair of the Great Lakes Task Force.

The Department of Energy’s $30.6 billion spending plan includes $75 million to complete construction of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams — a physics research center at Michigan State University projected to create 1,000 permanent jobs.

The proposal for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requests funding to evaluate pilot EnVision Centers — Detroit is home to the first — meant to help those receiving housing assistance to develop long-term skills for self-sufficiency.

The budget plan would reduce federal funding for cancer research and some other categories of medical research — a proposal that “flies in the opposite direction of what we just did,” Stabenow said. She was referring to the two-year budget deal approved by Congress last week that invests $2 billion over two years for the National Institutes of Health.

“I do think that the president’s budget is really tone deaf on what people have said they need in communities and what Congress has agreed to on a bipartisan basis,” Stabenow said.

Dead on arrival?

Lawmakers ultimately control federal spending levels. The White House budget reflects the priorities of the Trump administration.

Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, rejected the suggestion Monday that the budget proposal is “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill.

“This is a messaging document. The executive budget has always been a messaging budget,” he said during a briefing.

One of those messages this year, Mulvaney said is, “You don’t have to spend all this money, Congress, but if you do this is how we’d prefer to see you spend it.”

That spending plan does not include funds for the home-energy program for low-income households. Michigan is receiving roughly $156 million in federal funding, aid that is generally used to pay for home heating credits, weatherization and crisis intervention.

Reforms for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, would substitute part of recipients’ cash payments with “100 percent American grown foods provided directly” to food-stamp recipients.

The Department of Agriculture’s budget aims to cut the average premium subsidy for crop insurance from 62 percent to 48 percent. The federal program pays a subsidy to reduce premiums charged to producers by insurers, and currently has no annual limits. Subsidies would be limited to farmers with $500,000 or less in adjusted gross income.

Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Royal Oak, criticized the Trump spending plan for requesting cuts that would harm “the old, the sick and the poor, but asks nothing from those at the top.”

The administration also wants to cut funding by 38 percent for federal subsidies that keep passenger air service flying to more than 170 rural airports, including nine in northern Michigan.

The administration is requesting $93 million for the Essential Air Service, down from $149 million in 2018. Reforms would end subsidies to communities that are “relatively close to other airports,” according to a budget summary.

Transportation officials faced pushback from lawmakers last year after they zeroed out funding for the program and said it wastes money on mostly empty flights.

In a statement, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, criticized the White House plan to trim spending on the program.

“Reducing funding for the Essential Air Service program will make it harder for residents in smaller communities to reach new markets and connect to larger economic hubs,” Peters said.

Privatizing concerns

The White House on Monday released Trump’s long-awaited infrastructure plan, which envisions using $200 billion in taxpayer money to generate $1 trillion in private investment over 10 years to rebuild roads, highways, bridges and ports.

The outline calls for shortening the permitting process to two years and targeting rural infrastructure.

“We’re going to have a lot of public-private (partnerships), and that way it gets done on time, on budget,” Trump said Monday at the White House during a meeting with governors and local leaders.

Critics have said Trump’s privatization of public assets could lead to increased use of tolls and other mechanisms, allowing private companies to generate profits in exchange for financing projects.

They cite examples of companies that have entered agreements with state and local governments and later gone bankrupt or charged higher than expected tolls for the use of roads and bridges.

Republican leaders on the House Energy & Commerce Committee issued a statement saying that Trump “hit the nail on the head” with his plan to rebuild U.S. infrastructure, noting the panel’s work on promoting broadband deployment and improving energy infrastructure.

“More than 20 targeted infrastructure bills from this committee have passed the House, and we’ve got more in the pipeline,” said the lawmakers, including Upton and Chairman Greg Walden, R-Oregon.

Gov. Rick Snyder and other state governors a year ago submitted their top infrastructure projects to the National Governors Association, which presented a list to the White House.

Michigan’s priority list included federal funding for a new shipping channel at the Soo Locks, high-speed broadband Internet service, and work on customs plazas for the new Detroit River span to Canada and at the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron.

“The governor is happy to see President Trump and his team discussing infrastructure across the board — which includes things we can see and things we can’t,” spokeswoman Tanya Baker said by email.

Infrastructure was expected to be an area where Trump could work with Democrats on a legislative victory, but the idea of privatizing public assets is anathema to many members of the party.

Democrats also are concerned that Trump’s plan could leave Michigan, as well as its cities and counties, competing against other jurisdictions for grant funding and likely paying for more project costs.

“Communities like Flint, Saginaw and Bay City are already cash-strapped and simply cannot afford to fund large-scale infrastructure improvements on their own,” Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said in a statement.

Trump’s plan describes a $100 billion “incentive” program in which state and local governments, or other sponsors of projects, could use federal grants for no more than 20 percent of project costs.

Federal dollars typically comprise 80 percent of most highway projects and up to 50 percent of transit projects.

“It’s quite shocking to me after what the president has talked about that he would be putting forward a plan with so little real resources, and that would really disadvantage rural communities,” Stabenow said.

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Staff Writer Keith Laing contributed