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Budget ‘sacrifices’ shouldn’t mean dirty air, water

Chellie Pingree
Chellie Pingree Buy Photo
Posted July 30, 2013, at 1:17 p.m.
Last modified July 30, 2013, at 5:41 p.m.

One of my major responsibilities in Congress is as a member of the House Appropriations Committee. On this committee we decide what programs will be funded and at what level — in other words, the priorities of the federal government. This is a responsibility I take very seriously. I also recognize that reasonable people will disagree about what those priorities should be and that there should be room for debate and compromise.

In fact, the Appropriations Committee has a long-standing tradition of bipartisanship. As one of my colleagues is fond of saying, “There are Democrats, there are Republicans and there are Appropriators.”

But it’s hard to describe what happened last week as reasonable or bipartisan.

Last week, we took up a bill that funds the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and other related agencies. Collectively, these agencies protect the air we breathe, invest in the infrastructure that keeps our drinking water clean and support the parks and museums that host millions of visitors every year.

But the bill that my Republican colleagues pushed through guts the budgets for these critical programs and completely eliminates some agencies while including what amounts to a wish list of giveaways to special interests like mining and chemical companies.

The bill cuts a program that supports wastewater and drinking water projects by up to 80 percent — a program that in recent years has helped numerous communities throughout Maine improve their facilities while easing the burden on local taxpayers. The Boothbay Region Water District, for example, was able to replace aging components of their drinking water system because of this fund. And the towns of Topsham and Brunswick upgraded their wastewater treatment facility, supporting good paying construction jobs in the process.

In Portland, the city is working on a long-term project to upgrade its sewer and wastewater collections system to comply with the Clean Water Act. Currently, during wet weather, stormwater can combine with residential sewage and industrial waste and overflow into Portland’s streams, rivers and coastal waters untreated. This water pollution carries pathogens that can make swimmers sick, can contaminate seafood and, overall, has serious impacts on the health of the Casco Bay. City officials have proposed a $170 million, 15-year plan to address this issue — a plan that relies on the revolving loan funds that Republicans have slashed. Without access to this money, cities like Portland would have to look elsewhere, driving up costs to local taxpayers.

The Republicans also slashed the funding for the Environmental Protection Agency budget by a third. Not only do we depend upon the EPA to make sure the air we breathe is safe, the agency has also made numerous investments to clean up contaminated properties and stimulate economic growth in communities including like Sanford, Bath and Rockland — just in the past three or four years alone.

The Republican proposal also cuts funding for the National Endowment for the Arts in half. This isn’t just about preserving and promoting art and culture, but it’s about a vibrant creative economy that creates jobs here in Maine. In Portland alone, the creative economy generates $50 million a year in economic activity, and investments by agencies like the NEA are helping make that possible.

Meanwhile, the bill contains policy provisions that allow mining companies to avoid putting aside enough money to support cleanup efforts if their operations cause any contamination — which means taxpayers could be left holding the bag if things go wrong while the company walks away with the profits. And big chemical companies like Dow are getting handouts in this bill too — including a provision preventing the environmental experts at the EPA from regulating a pesticide that could cause health problems in children.

This is no way to govern.

While Republicans talk of “shared sacrifice,” they passed a defense spending bill that ignored the very budget caps they had championed. And now they want to make up the difference by slashing critical spending on programs that affect average Americans.

I don’t think this is what is meant by “shared sacrifice,” and it troubles me to think what critical programs my Republican colleagues will put on the chopping block next.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, is serving her third term representing Maine’s 1st District in the U.S. House.

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