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Obama budget slashes Great Lakes funding

Mar. 5, 2014
 
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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama reined in funding for restoration of the Great Lakes in his budget released this week, spurring a backlash among environmentalists from Wisconsin and a half dozen other states.

Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal 2015 slashes $25 million from the current funding level for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which is currently supporting nearly 60 projects in Wisconsin aimed at controlling and monitoring pollutants and preserving and restoring fish and wildlife habitats in Lake Michigan and Superior.

The president’s budget cuts another $430 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which helps communities repair wastewater infrastructure to prevent sewage runoff into the Great Lakes and the rivers and streams that lead into them.

“This is not the time to cut Great Lakes programs that are producing solid economic and environmental benefits for people and communities across the region,” said Todd Ambs, campaign director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which represents 120 groups from across the region. “A lot of work remains to restore the Great Lakes to health. Cutting funding now will only cost us more later, because projects will get harder and more expensive the longer we wait.”

The Obama administration said in the budget that it “maintains strong support” for the Restoration Initiative with proposed funding of $275 million in fiscal 2015. That’s down from $300 million in 2014. The administration said the cuts to the clean water fund are part of “targeted reductions” to focus on communities most in need and noted that it still provides $1.8 billion for the fund.

Obama launched the restoration initiative in 2009 to make good on a campaign promise to support revitalization of the lakes. Since then, the program has invested more than $1 billion in cleaning up toxins, fighting habitat degradation, preventing runoff from cities and farms and battling invasive species.

But the president has been locked repeatedly in battles with Republicans who want to cut federal spending. That and the fact that Obama didn’t even ask for as much funding as this year for the lake and water programs in his budget proposal does not bode well for the programs getting more than he asked for when Congress passes spending legislation. Republicans in Congress have already derided the budget as a political wish list they are unlikely to support.

Some lawmakers from Wisconsin, however, said Wednesday that they are prepared to fight the cuts. Republican Rep. Reid Ribble, whose district includes Green Bay, which has benefited from more than a dozen restoration projects, said the president is making the “wrong move.”

“There’s a lot of places that we ought to be looking at cutting spending, but the largest fresh-water body in the world is not one of them,” Ribble said. He added that it’s “a little odd that I find myself more environmentally concerned than the president of the United States.”

Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin said she, too, plans to fight for more funding of the programs.

“Investing in the restoration and protection of our Great Lakes is a top priority of mine in the US Senate and that is why I am a strong supporter of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative,” she said in a statement.

Republican Senator Ron Johnson took the opposite view. He said the restoration initiative didn’t exist until five years ago and that while he’s certain the money has been put to good use, he believes “those who direct the spending of this money have grown accustomed to existing funding levels.

“But in an era of federal deficits in the hundreds of billions of dollars adding to our $17 trillion in debt, there must be some belt-tightening,” Johnson said. “A $25 million reduction in a $300 million budget does not seem an unreasonable contribution toward stopping the mortgaging of our children’s future.”

The release of Obama’s budget coincided with an annual conference of Great Lakes advocates in Washington, including Mike Carlson, government relations director for Wisconsin’s Gathering Waters Conservancy.

He and the others were already scheduled to spend much of Thursday visiting members of Congress and speaking with them about the lakes. Now, the Obama budget will surely be a major topic in those talks.

“The cuts from the president’s budget were certainly disappointing, but who knows between now and actually the election how the budget process will work,” Carlson said in an interview Wednesday.

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Contact dslack@usatoday.com. Follow @donovanslack.

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