Kentucky environmental advocates are worried that budget reductions called for by Gov. Matt Bevin will make it impossible for the Energy and Environment Cabinet to perform its basic functions.
In his first budget proposal since taking office last month, Bevin on Tuesday called for across-the-board 9 percent budget reductions to most state agencies.
From 2012-2016, the cabinet has already seen its budget reduced by nearly 16 percent, and has implemented those cuts in various departments.
The cabinet’s responsibilities include implementing and enforcing federal laws such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, plus mine safety, surface mine permitting and reclamation, forestry, oil and gas regulation and preserving Kentucky’s wild areas.
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What specific state agencies would be cut, and by how much, would be up to cabinet secretaries, Bevin said on Tuesday.
In an interview with WFPL Tuesday morning, before Bevin announced his budget plans, Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Charles Snavely said he would support Bevin’s budget and make any necessary cuts.
“I’ve told people since I’ve been here we have, to me, three functions,” he said. “One is to enforce the laws. The second is to keep people in Kentucky safe and healthy. The third is to help provide a healthy business climate. So those are three things we’re going to try to do regardless of what our budget is.”
But Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council is skeptical the cabinet can take yet another round of cuts.
“I think we are at the point where, depending on how they allocate the cuts, you will see a potential loss of some of the delegated programs,” he said.
The delegated programs he’s referring to include the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act; if Kentucky can’t adequately enforce those laws, legal action could force the federal government to take over.
Because of that threat, often those programs are protected from the steepest cuts, FitzGerald said.
“And you see some of the state-led programs like dam safety and some of these other programs will have to absorb the cuts,” he said.
FitzGerald said one logical way for the Energy and Environment Cabinet to help blunt the effects of budget cuts would be by raising permit fees. He noted that all pollution permits — with the exception of air — aren’t high enough to pay for the program costs of processing, permitting and inspection.
“The public in the fourth-poorest state in the nation is subsidizing the issuance of permits allowing companies to discharge their waste into the air and the land and the water,” FitzGerald said. “So when you’re looking at tight budget times, the first thing you have to look at is why the public and the taxpayers are subsidizing the issuance of pollution permits.”
Kentucky Conservation Committee Executive Director Lane Boldman said from what she’s seen, the cabinet already has trouble performing some of its basic duties.
“I’ve watched these departments cut in every way they know how to cut, and at a certain point you just get to the point where you can’t function,” she said.
She’s worried about cuts to land conservation programs that could hamper efforts to promote recreational tourism in Eastern Kentucky.
“There’s a lot of opportunity with well-maintained parks and wild areas, particularly in Eastern Kentucky, as job creators,” Boldman said. “So to me, it’s a bit penny wise and pound foolish if we’re to do any additional cuts in that area.”
“I’m hoping sometimes against hope that the Bevin administration will have a better understanding than the predecessor that protecting air and protecting water quality and protecting the agricultural productivity and the biological integrity of the land resources is truly the building block of a healthy economy,” he said.
“And you can’t shortchange the protection of your natural resources and expect to have anything other than an environment and an economy that is unsustainable.”