EPA leaders, advocates urge Trump administration to reconsider cuts to budget and workforce

Reports that the Trump administration plans to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget “to the bone” have supporters worried that what needs the most protection right now is the agency’s workforce.

An EPA budget breakdown obtained by Federal News Radio includes a 25 percent cut to EPA’s budget, a 20 percent cut to EPA’s staff, up to a 30 percent reduction in state grants and flat lining of roughly two dozen programs, including the Global Change Research, environmental justice, environmental education and the Clean Power Plan implementation.

Clifford Villa, an assistant law professor at the University of New Mexico, and a former legal counsel for the EPA, said there is always an assumption that agencies can do more with less.

“I think agencies, particularly the EPA, already have been doing more with less for a very long time,” Villa said. “Because the budgets have already been cut to the bone, the very last thing you do is let people go. Human resources are your most precious resources.”

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Part of the fear, Villa said, is that the personnel who will leave through cuts or early retirement are likely the ones who’ve worked for the agency for years.

“That means taking people with the most knowledge, the most expertise and pushing them out the door,” Villa said. In their place will be younger, less experienced people who don’t bring that institutional knowledge or years of experience under their belts.

Federal News Radio looked at what the consequences of shifting more responsibilities to the states would mean for the EPA, but from the state perspective, losing federal support means “you’re just losing,” Villa said.

Cuts to state programs and regional offices mean less federal oversight across states because personnel can’t travel or devote time to handling issues outside of a particular region, Villa said, Without resources to conduct oversight, more problems like the Flint water crisis could arise.

“The assumption that states could do the work better, they don’t have any more resources than the federal government,” Villa said. “If everyone has the same resource constraints there’s a lot of work not getting done.”

‘Stress and anxiety’

The Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney Feb. 27  announced topline spending numbers for the fiscal 2018 budget, a plan he called a “true America-first” budget. The plan includes $603 billion for Defense spending  — a $54 billion increase — and $462 billion in non-defense discretionary spending.

Trump wants higher buyouts in defense bill.

OMB is scheduled to release a “budget blueprint” March 16, which will outline the president’s budget he presents to Congress. In the meantime, agencies are looking over these topline numbers to see how they will either be able to meet the administration’s directive, or propose alternatives in the funding plan.

In a memo to Office of Administration and Resources Management (OARM) employees, OARM Acting Assistant Administrator Donna Vizian urged  workers to stay focused and offered assurance that “we will do everything in our power to protect our ability to support the mission of the agency in protecting human health and the environment.”

“I have been assured that Administrator [Scott] Pruitt will be working hard on our behalf to effectively represent us in the budget deliberations,” said Vizian in the memo, which was obtained by Federal News Radio. “That does not mean that changes will not happen, but it does mean that he wants to take a pragmatic approach to our appropriation.”

Vizian shared a rough timeline for the budget process, but stopped short of offering specifics, saying the process was”highly confidential … the details of which cannot be shared.”

Between March 16 and early May, “a lot of effort will be spent defining the budget at a fairly fine level of detail,” Vizian said. “Please be mindful that we are in the early stages of the FY 2018 budget process and more negotiations and discussions must be addressed before we know our budget.”

Vizian acknowledged that employees had been asking about the continuing resolution lawmakers passed last year that expires Apr. 28, but added her office had “not seen any recent numbers from their process.”

Employees in EPA’s Region 5, based in Chicago, received a similar email from their Acting Regional Administrator Robert Kaplan.

“You have likely seen news reports about the president’s 2018 federal budget,” said Kaplan in the email. “These reports are of concern to all of us, and are causing considerable stress and anxiety.”

Kaplan echoed Vizian on the 2018 budget process, saying the early numbers were just the start of longer negotiation.

“Let me again state the obvious: at this point, we do not know what will appear in the president’s 2018 final budget proposal, and we do not know what will happen upon consideration by Congressional House and Senate subcommittees,” Kaplan said. “It is a process with many likely changes before a final appropriations bill is passed.”

Kaplan also said it was impossible to predict funding levels for the remainder of fiscal 2017, but “we are managing our resources — including payroll and travel — prudently to prepare for the range of possible outcomes.”

In a letter to Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.),  the American Federation of Government Employees said that while it supports increasing the Defense budget, EPA’s funding “should not be further eviscerated to achieve that goal.”

Murkowski is the chairwoman, and Udall is the ranking member for the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

“EPA already has been cut to the bone this past decade as a result of harmful austerity policies,” said AFGE Legislative Director Tom Kahn in the letter. “Further cuts could leave EPA with not enough federal employees to do the required work, forcing the agency to outsource work to more costly contractors — negating much of the financial benefit from the cuts in the first place.”

A request for comment from the senators was not immediately returned.