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Eye On Boise

Wed., Feb. 1, 2012, 12:01 p.m.

Budget cuts have pushed DEQ below 2001 funding level

The impact of recent years' budget cuts on the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality comes to this: The DEQ's budget request for next year is almost $1.5 million less than its general-fund appropriation was in 2001. "Though our overall workforce is at its lowest level in over a decade, our workload definitely is not," said DEQ Director Toni Hardesty, who made her budget pitch to lawmakers this morning. The department has taken on the underground storage tank program, crop residence burning, and "federal requirements continue to be passed on to the state and our workload continues to grow," she said. Its state funding  has been cut $4 million since fiscal year 2009.

"In response to these overall budget reductions, the agency has eliminated our planning division, temporarily suspended our beneficial use reconnaissance program (BURP), eliminated the Gem Stars program, and reduced staff in almost all of our general-funded programs," Hardesty told JFAC. "In addition to eliminating these programs and staff, all areas in the agency have seen significant reductions in both personnel and operating dollars."

Fifty-eight percent of the department's budget now comes from federal funding, Hardesty said, so the agency "is understandably watching the federal budget discussions very closely." She said, "We are hopeful that the states won't take the brunt of all reductions," but she gave lawmakers a "heads-up" that that could happen.

The budget cuts were so deep that in fiscal years 2009 and 2010, DEQ suspended its stream monitoring under the BURP program; JFAC allowed it to draw funds from the state's Water Pollution Control Account last year on a one-time basis to start monitoring again, and 238 streams statewide were sampled. Hardesty has proposed, and Gov. Butch Otter has recommended, making that the permanent funding source for the monitoring program, at $398,700 a year; she said an analysis shows the fund can cover the monitoring and still also cover matching requirements for revolving loan funds that the state gets from the federal government, and matching funds for Coeur d'Alene Basin cleanup. "We are confident that the account can support the monitoring funding request in fiscal year 2013 and the next two years," Hardesty said. If federal match requirements change, the department would "revisit and re-evaluate the funding source."

Overall, the governor's proposed budget for DEQ for next year, which Hardesty said the agency supports, is for $61.4 million in total funds, down 0.1 percent from this year; state general funds, at $14.2 million, would be up 1.3 percent from this year.

Some JFAC members said they worried about tapping the pollution control account. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, asked Hardesty, "Have we given any consideration to maybe doing the BURP testing every other year? Maybe that would help us accumulate some funds to keep that program going." Hardesty responded that the result of the earlier hiatus in monitoring is that "we are missing two years of data, which makes it difficult at best to fulfill our clean water obligation. It's very problematic." Not having the data could hurt permit applicants and prevent improving streams from being recognized, she said.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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