One week into the Legislative session, shock waves rolled through the State Capitol when House Bill 1, the 2012-2013 state funding bill, was laid out before the House of Representatives. A week later, the Senate’s state funding bill, Senate Bill 1, basically mirrored the House version, though is a little more lenient with $2.3 billion less in cuts. These bills as filed give the first real picture of what a “scorched earth” approach to dealing with the current projected budget shortfall would look like with no new taxes and no use of the $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund.
To balance the budget with the $73 billion in taxes and fees projected to be available for the 2012-13 budget biennium, $31 billion from current state government spending is summarily erased, and an estimated 9,600 state jobs are eliminated in HB 1 and 8,200 in SB 1. These initial budget plans cut spending in virtually every sector of state government and do not even include funding that would cover current services, population growth and inflation. What’s left is a state budget that is $13-15 billion less than the current budget and $25-27 billion less than what agencies say they need to continue the current level of services. The impacts and in-depth analysis of such an across-the-board “meat-cleaver” approach haven’t even begun.
But one thing is glaring --- the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and its air quality programs, designed to protect our environment and public health, would take a huge hit in both proposed budget plans. Overall, the TCEQ would see its biennial budget reduced from $997.7 million for 2010-11 to $661.5 million in 2012-13 [a 33.7% reduction], and 235 of its employee positions eliminated [a 7.8% reduction]. Most significantly, the agency’s air quality planning and assessment program, which develops and implements statewide and regional plans, rules, strategies, and technical guidance to attain air quality standards, would be reduced by 56.4%! This at a time when the size of that specific program could possibly double or triple depending on new federal air quality guidelines.
Texas has achieved significant ozone reductions in large part because of TCEQ programs that work to ensure proper vehicle inspection and maintenance and incentivize accelerated replacement of older, dirtier vehicles and engines. Despite this, HB 1 and SB 1 propose to slash the highly successful, nationally recognized Texas Emission Reduction Plan program (TERP), which provides grants to replace or upgrade heavy-duty diesel-powered trucks, machinery, train engines and construction vehicles. Funding for the Diesel Emissions Reduction Grant Program, the Clean School Bus Initiative and the Clean Fleet Program is halved. The New Technology Research Development Program and funding for county implemented projects to reduce air emissions are zeroed out. With such cuts, only 50% of the yearly projected reductions of smog-producing nitrogen oxides (NOx) going into the air would be achievable through TERP. Equally striking, proposed budget cuts would completely eliminate the Low Income Repair Assistance Program, designed to help low income Texans replace older cars that produce dirtier air emissions. Nearly 37,000 vehicles are projected to be repaired or replaced through the $90 million budgeted to the LIRAP program in 2010-2011, but in 2012 and 2013 there would be zero with the proposed budget cuts. And, on top of all this, TCEQ’s field inspections and complaints programs would be reduced by 10%, and its enforcement and compliance support functions by 11%.
Unquestionably, Texas has made significant progress over the past decade to make our air cleaner and healthier, and the epicenter of all these efforts has been here in the Houston – Gulf Coast area. Certainly, everyone agrees that all these efforts, and likely others, must be continued in the future if we are to not only maintain the progress we have made but also ensure that our air quality continues to improve in the years to come. In our efforts thus far, we have already “harvested the low-hanging fruit” --- the easier and more cost-beneficial emission reduction strategies --- in order to achieve our recent air quality improvements. As we move forward in our efforts to make our air even cleaner and healthier, available options and strategies become more limited, harder to implement, more costly and likely more controversial. We cannot afford to eliminate or inhibit any reasonable option or strategy, especially any that have already proven practical and successful, like TERP and LIRAP. The proposed cuts to these TCEQ air programs will likely not only halt further progress towards cleaner air, they will make it extremely difficult to maintain the level of progress that we have made over the past decade through all the difficult and costly efforts.
But, the filing of these funding bills is merely the starting point in the long, tortuous process of determining how Texas state government will be funded and operated for the next two years. The budget will go through many changes before it finally passes the Legislature at the end of the session. History makes it clear that the budgets proposed today by HB 1 and SB 1 will not be the budget finally passed by the Legislature at the end of May. Some budget items now cut under these bills are likely to be restored in full, or at least partially, and some items currently “zeroed out” are likely to be restored to some level. An improving Texas economy, and a lot of negotiation and compromise in the budget process, will determine how and to what level all state programs and services are funded the next two years.
But one thing is clear --- if some new funding sources are not created or some existing funding sources are not expanded or revised, the breadth and extent of the cuts reflected in HB 1 and SB 1 foretell, at best, that all the State’s programs and services are effectively being “put on hold” for the next two years, and at worst, they foretell loss of growth, advancement and progress in many areas, such as environmental protection. Unfortunately for the Houston area --- indeed for all of Texas --- concerted, successful efforts toward cleaner air and a healthier environment could very well fall victim to the budget knife.
Elena Craft in Air Pollution, Environmental Protection Agency, GHGs, Ozone, PM2.5, TCEQ
With Texas now facing a $27 billion budget shortfall and the possibility of new taxes, layoffs and service cuts at the state level, we’re long overdue in implementing the long-term savings that will help improve our quality of life, save jobs and even make Texans healthier. It’s time for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to stop wasting taxpayer money fighting the Environmental Protection Agency and for state legislators to adopt common-sense solutions like those outlined in the “No Regrets” bill, which offers reductions strategies for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at no cost to business and consumers.
Reducing air pollutants that are harmful to human health (e.g., particulate matter, ozone-precursors, and even GHGs) saves money. How? Fewer missed days at work. Decreased number of hospital visits. Lower mortality rates. We’re talking about the hidden costs of air pollution. Don’t just take our word for it. Consider that in Texas:
Asthma accounted for more than 25,000 hospitalizations and an estimated $446.8 million in hospital charges in 2007. An estimated 2.3 million (12.9%) adults had self-reported lifetime asthma, and 1.4 million (8.2%) adults had self-reported current asthma.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death and will become the number one leading cause of death in the next decade. The total estimated direct medical costs due to cancer in 1998 were $4.9 billion, and indirect costs from lost productivity were $9.1 billion – for a total of about $14.0 billion attributable to cancer in Texas that year. (1998 was the most recent year available). With a 10% per year increase in health care costs, we’ve estimated that number may be as high as $43 billion for 2010.
We rank first in the percentage of uninsured workers, which can only mean more emergency room visits each year.
Last month, nearly 300 local and national health organizations, public health groups and other clean air advocates sent a letter urging Congress to defend the Clean Air Act for just the kinds of reasons previously listed here. EDF also signed the letter, which included the following plea:
“Over the coming years the EPA will be fulfilling its duty to reduce the smog and soot pollution, air toxics, and global warming pollution that are the cause of these public health threats. We urge you to fully support the EPA in fulfilling this responsibility. Doing so is quite literally a matter of life and death for tens of thousands of people and will mean the difference between chronic debilitating illness or a healthy life for hundreds of thousands more."
Texans are overwhelmingly opposed to any tax increases and newly elected members of the Texas House were sent to Austin on promises of “No New Taxes.” Complying with the EPA, adhering to the Clean Air Act, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions will help Texas pull its way out of a major fiscal crisis and have the added benefit of improving the lives of millions of Texans.