State environmental regulators say they’re willing to chop $4.4 million worth of green from their budget next year but warned the governor that some of those cuts come with strings attached.
More than half the department’s $349 million budget comes from the federal government, often in the form of federal matching funds that would shrink or disappear if state spending were cut, according to Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Robert Martineau.
“We don’t want to leave that federal money on the table,” Martineau told Gov. Bill Haslam at a Capitol Hill budget hearing Nov. 15.
The department is requesting a $166 million state budget, although $85.8 million comes from dedicated state funding such as fees and revenues. TDEC oversees 53 state parks, which welcome 30 million visitors annually, but is also a major enforcer and administrator for state and federal government regulations like those that address clean air and water.
Cuts that would reduce the department’s budget by 5 percent, as requested by Haslam, include reducing funding to maintain and fix parks and equipment, and leasing out or closing parks with outdated facilities and limited visitors. But moves to close those state parks would result in more than $1 million in lost revenue, and eliminating 23 jobs in the Bureau of Environment would mean losing more than a half-million dollars in federal funds and fees, Martineau said.
Haslam is expected to cut as much as $400 million from this year’s estimated $30 billion budget to make up for increased costs in state government that are outpacing growth in state revenues.
“As we’ve told other folks, it’s our firm hope obviously we don’t have to ask everybody to do the full 5 percent,” Haslam told Martineau at the hearing.
Separately from the cuts, TDEC is asking Haslam for a $6.8 million permanent increase in dedicated funds instead of one-time money to help local governments and the state acquire park space and another $1.4 million next year to leverage federal money for a clean water program.
The department isn’t without its critics. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has called the agency “out of control” and launched a website in his push to roll back regulations he believes trip up businesses, including those at TDEC.
Haslam made a point over the summer to suggest that state agencies re-evaluate some of their regulations in a way that takes pressure off businesses, but none of those issues arose in TDEC’s budget hearing.
The department has managed to speed up some of its permitting processes, Finance and Administration Commissioner Mark Emkes said, and suggested other agencies mirror those efforts.
“Without spending hardly any money you’re becoming more effective and efficient, and we need to follow your example, all of us,” he told Martineau at the hearing.