At DEP Budget Hearing, Worries About Cuts in Federal Aid

Questions raised whether state agency can continue to protect NJ’s land, water, and air if Trump administration takes a scalpel to federal environmental budget

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
DEP Commissioner Bob Martin
When legislators met for the public hearing on the Department of Environmental Protection’s fiscal budget for 2018, the focus was not so much on state spending but on whether federal aid would match past levels.

With the federal government kicking in roughly one-third of the agency’s $636 million budget, it is a reason for concern given the rhetoric coming out of Washington, D.C. — and one that won’t soon be allayed.

But DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said it is premature to say what the impact of actions will be on the agency’s budget, even though federal aid supports a multitude of programs to protect the state’s land, air, and water.

“We try not to work in hypotheticals,’’ Martin told Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), when asked if the department can handle the projected cuts in programs proposed by the Trump administration, particularly an $85 million reduction in aid for the DEP’s operations. All told, the state will lose $188 million in federal dollars from about 10 different departments in the national government.

“I didn’t realize the amount of federal dollars we receive for environmental programs,’’ said Sarlo, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. “Quite frankly, I’m concerned.’’

So much so that Sarlo joined other members of the panel and a couple of environmentalists prior to the hearing to warn about the impact of the proposed cuts in the federal budget on the ability to protect the state’s land, air and water. The reductions could lead to delays in cleanups of federal Superfund toxic waste sites, layoffs of DEP employees, and less enforcement of environmental laws, they argued.

“It’s the early stages of their budget process. It’s absolutely premature,’’ Martin said, adding that it is not the first time the department has had to deal with unexpected cuts in funding for its programs.

“We’ve had to pivot in the past on numerous times,’’’ the commissioner said. “We’re pretty good and resilient.’’

In the past, the Christie administration has shifted funds from one state program to another to cover shortfalls; last year it diverted about $20 million from the Clean Energy Fund to finance state parks management and operations. The diversion is proposed once again in the budget submitted by the governor’s office.

In his opening comments, Martin said the state’s air is getting cleaner, its waters are improving, and ocean beaches continue to be some of the cleanest in the country because of actions taken by the department.

Overall, the DEP’s proposed budget of $636 million is down 1.8 percent from the previous year.