Budget puts conservation at risk

By Marc Kovac

The next two-year budget must be cut by upward of $3 billion.

COLUMBUS — Last month, just before Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial start of the summer vacation season, the Environmental Protection Agency issued notice of unsafe toxins at Grand Lake St. Marys in western Ohio.

Samples taken by the state agency indicated an elevated health risk, and officials warned residents against swimming, water skiing, jet skiing and other activities that would bring them into contact with the lake’s water.

The state program behind the monitoring is now facing the loss of some 15 full-time positions under budget-cut scenarios being considered by state lawmakers. And Ohio’s environmental advocates are urging the Legislature to reconsider the funding to protect residents, like those who use Grand Lake St. Marys.

“It has taken steady investment, vigilant oversight and continued enforcement and collaboration to protect our air, land and water resources,” said Jack Shaner, deputy director of the Ohio Environmental Council. “But today, we are in peril of slipping backward. Ohio’s dire state-budget outlook could put that steady progress for environmental cleanup and natural resources conservation at risk.”

The council, the Nature Conservancy in Ohio, the Sierra Club and others have joined the chorus of advocacy groups pushing the Legislature and Gov. Ted Strickland to restore funding to various programs.

Lawmakers are negotiating spending plans for the next two fiscal years for state agencies. In the next week and a half, they have to cut upward of $3 billion from the budget legislation passed by the state Senate earlier this month.

Strickland late last week proposed paying for part of the shortfall by allowing slot machines at Ohio’s seven horse-racing tracks.

But even with a gaming expansion, they’ll have to cut more than $2 billion in spending, including reductions or the elimination of line items that pay for programs for the elderly and needy, as well as initiatives aimed at protecting the environment and access to natural areas.

Shaner and other environmental advocates are pushing lawmakers to increase fees to pay for the latter. For example, they want the state to institute a new registration on kayak and canoe owners and livery operators, with the proceeds used to pay for Ohio’s Scenic Rivers program.

They’re also seeking an increase in landfill fees to help pay for Ohio EPA and Department of Natural Resources programs.