Bloated Budgets Don’t Equal Environmental Progress

By almost any measure, Americans have made dramatic improvements in environmental stewardship. The Clinton-Gore administration has been one of the loudest celebrants of this record. Vice President Gore proudly states that “our air and water are cleaner and healthier than they have been in decades.” According to the White House, Americans have “the cleanest environment in a quarter century.” The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proclaims that “citizens across the nation are breathing cleaner air, are drinking cleaner water, and have less exposure to dangerous toxic compounds than they did 25 years ago.”

Given this glowing rhetoric, the Clinton-Gore budget for fiscal year (FY) 2001 comes as quite a shock. Rather than enjoying the “cleanest environment in a quarter century” the White House must believe we are, in reality, facing environmental Armageddon. At a time when inflation is running well below 3 percent, the president’s environmental budget contains a whopping 11 percent increase over FY 2000. Weighing in at $42.5 billion, the president’s request includes more than $4.1 billion in new spending.

Just what are Americans getting for this hefty price tag? For starters, there is $1.4 billion for the Lands Legacy Initiative, a 114 percent increase over FY 2000. Moreover, the administration wants to make this a “protected” budget category, meaning that the increased spending will be locked into place well after President Clinton becomes a private citizen. This might not be considered cause for concern, except that the top priority of the Lands Legacy Initiative is to put more private land under federal ownership. The federal government already owns nearly one of every three acres in the United States and much of that land is poorly managed — both from an economic and environmental perspective.

There is also $1.7 billion for research into “factors influencing climate and the likely consequences of global warming.” Presumably, funding for this research is needed because scientists still cannot tell us if the global warming hypothesis has any basis in fact. Putting the cart before the horse, however, the president’s budget also includes $2.4 billion — a 42 percent increase — to “combat global climate change.”

Then there is the “Greening the Globe” initiative to protect forests and biodiversity around the world. This is intended to help developing nations “strengthen their economies by preserving their forests.” If developing nations can boost their economies by preserving forests, then they should not require subsidies from the U.S. taxpayer to do so. Nonetheless, the president is proposing a host of spending increases for this initiative, including a 60 percent increase for USAID programs for forest conservation, and a 300 percent increase in funding for debt-for-nature swaps. Even NASA is getting in on the act with a program to monitor forest loss from space.

In a nod to the vice president’s presidential ambitions, the administration’s budget includes $9.3 billion to take on one of Gore’s favorite targets — urban sprawl. Even though zoning law is a function of local governments, the White House wants a 14 percent spending increase to help towns and cities “grow in ways that enhance their quality of life and ensure strong, sustainable economic growth.” Although urban areas cover less than 5 percent of the American landscape, the president wants $3 billion over 10 years for a program to, among other things, “preserve green space.” Another $125 million of alleged environmental spending would encourage the use of “advanced crime-solving technologies.” Of course, the biggest portion of the anti-sprawl budget is simply good old-fashioned pork-barrel spending: $9.1 billion for public works projects like “light rail and other transit systems.”

President Clinton also proposes to spend $3 billion — a $1.7 billion increase — to help farmers “protect water quality and wildlife habitat.” This is in addition to the $22.3 billion for farmers requested in the Department of Agriculture’s budget.

Rather than offer serious proposals to address our remaining environmental challenges, the administration’s FY 2001 budget simply throws money at a laundry list of noble-sounding programs. Americans have made, and will continue to make, great strides in environmental stewardship.

The Clinton-Gore budget, however, is a step in the wrong direction.