In a sometimes contentious budget hearing on Wednesday, officials from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) alternately begged legislators for more funding and threatened them with the possibility of a takeover by the “political” Environmental Protection Agency. Governor Bentley’s budget proposal zeroes out all funding for ADEM, with the expectation that the agency will increase fees enough to support itself.
That way, legislators get to brag about “no new taxes” even as industry pays more.
This isn’t a surprise. ADEM officials warned during the second special session that budget cuts could bring in EPA:
Legislators voted to remove $1.2 million from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s (ADEM) budget, leaving the agency with just $280k to regulate CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – aka factory farms).
Last session, ADEM Director Lance LeFleur stressed that Alabama wouldn’t like the consequences of the cuts, but the Legislature ignored him:
LeFleur wrote that, under the most recent budget proposal, the department would have “two bad options.” It could either dramatically increase permit fees paid by industry by about 120 percent, or it could cede its water permitting program to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The agency responded in December by raising fees by 20%, prompting protests from ALFA & the Business Council of Alabama (oh, the irony!):
“…a letter to ADEM and comments on the blog, Canary said the fee increase would add expenses to businesses, particularly smaller ones less able to absorb them.
“By our records, permitting fees were raised by 19 percent in 2011 and 50 percent in 2013,” Canary wrote in a Nov.12 letter to the commission. “If adopted, the 20 percent increase will be the third permit fee increase since 2011. Thus in the aggregate, the regulated community will have seen its fees more than double since 2011.” BCA said increased funding would cut the need for fee increases.
The Alabama Farmers’ Federation also raised concerns about the fee increases. In a recent statement, Jimmy Parnell, the president of the Farmers Federation, said new fees for livestock and poultry operations would “come straight out of farmers’ pockets.”
The Federation, like BCA, said it supported greater General Fund support for ADEM to alleviate the fee increases.
The “low-tax champions” BCA & AFLA are finally seeing the fruits of the scorched-Earth budget and tax policies they’ve promoted for years. “No new taxes” isn’t such a fun slogan when the taxes get renamed “fees” and come out of your pocket.
Given the attitude of most Alabama legislators, it’s surprising this didn’t work:
How did we get to this point? The Alabama supermajority loves to take money allocated to one use and spend it on another. It’s kind of like gambling with the rent money – except that it’s our money, so legislators don’t feel any personal pain when it happens.
Per the 2016 budget, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management will receive only $280,000 from the state, yet has to transfer $1.2 million worth of fees collected to the general fund. ADEM’s state appropriation was more than $6 million in 2008, but has been steadily cut in the years since.
“The Alabama Legislature has the constitutional responsibility to appropriate money to fund state agencies,” said commissioner Terry Richardson, who abstained from voting on the final measure. “By refusing to address our state’s dire budget needs, the politicians of Montgomery have passed the buck to this commission rather than deal with the rising costs.
“They’re basically passing the buck onto us to raise taxes so they can say they didn’t.”
When they pass the buck all the way to the EPA, everyone in the country will help pay. We love to shake our fists at the feds, but that’s only one hand. The other is always, always outstretched and begging Washington for more cash.