Environmental advocates routinely seek increased funding for state agencies that have felt the impact of years of tight budgets and staffing cuts, but this year they believe their suggestions were received by lawmakers “loud and clear.”
Three of the four top priorities outlined by the Green Budget Coalition were funded at or above the group’s requested amount in the Ways and Means Committee budget released last week. The fourth priority area — parks and recreation — could reach the coalition’s target through an amendment that has dozens of cosponsors.
And as a percentage of the overall budget, the House leadership budget funds environmental programs at the highest rate in four years.
“We were incredibly grateful,” Massachusetts Rivers Alliance policy director Gabby Queenan said. “Across the board, we felt like House Ways and Means heard loud and clear the need for these environmental agencies and showed that by supporting increases for agencies tasked with doing a significant amount.”
In fact, the Green Budget Coalition was so pleased with the initial draft that the partnership only sought the one aforementioned amendment and did not ask lawmakers to pursue any others, according to Queenan.
The 30-plus organizations that make up the Green Budget Coalition have often warned that years of cuts to state departments left them with insufficient staff to fully enforce environmental protections, even as concerns about climate change have grown. At a February event, group leaders highlighted four key areas of need: the Department of Environmental Protection’s administration, the Division of Ecological Restoration, and both parks and recreation and watershed programs at the Department of Conservation and Reservation.
Governor Charlie Baker’s budget proposal matched the coalition’s request for DEP funding, but recommended budgets below what was suggested for the other three line items. The House Ways and Means version goes further, including roughly the same $31.5 million allocation for the DEP and about $120,000 more than the coalition proposed for ecological restoration and for watershed management.
Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli, chair of the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee, said the budget “clearly exceeded expectations,” a reaction shared by several environmental groups.
“We’re pleasantly surprised to see at least one of them exceed the recommendation,” said Casey Bowers, legislative director for the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “We appreciate that, to these agencies, there is going to be a significant increase in staffing and what they can accomplish.”
Neither version of the budget meets the coalition’s request of $47 million for state parks and recreation — the governor proposed $42.2 million, while the Ways and Means Committee recommended $44.7 million — but Pignatelli filed an amendment that would increase the funding to the suggested level.
Most of the funding would go to staffing and maintaining state parks that have been growing in popularity. Pignatelli described park staffing as a critical need after 450 employees were cut over the past eight years.
“There’s 100,000 acres of state-owned land in the Berkshires alone, and I think there’s two park rangers,” Pignatelli said. “Environmental ecotourism is a driver of the economy, and it’s generating revenue for the economy. We can all benefit from it, but we need to make some investments.”
Overall, the fiscal year 2020 budget proposed by House Ways and Means increases spending on state environmental agencies and programs by more than $19 million over the amount allocated in fiscal year 2019. The recommendation exceeds that made by Baker, whose January budget document proposed an increase of about $15 million.
But even with those added dollars, the state still is spending just more than half of what advocates say is ideal. Groups in the Green Budget Coalition have long called for lawmakers to designate 1 percent of the total budget to environmental agencies, a rate that was often achieved in the early 2000s. The spending proposed in the House leadership and Baker budgets on environmental agencies clocks in at 0.6 percent and 0.58 percent, respectively, of total spending, according to the coalition.
‘Environmental ecotourism is a driver of the economy, and it’s generating revenue for the economy. We can all benefit from it.’
If approved at the current level with no additional amendments — which is by no means a certainty, given the dozens of amendments that earmark environmental spending on local projects and one that would add another $350,000 to the DEP — the Ways and Means Budget would support environmental programs at the highest percentage of total spending since fiscal year 2016.
For Queenan, even that increase is a “positive step in the right direction.”
“We have a ways to go to bring these agencies back to where they were, but we’re very grateful for the support they’ve given,” she said.