On July 19, the U.S. House passed its FY 2019 Interior-Environment Appropriations bill by a vote of 217-199 along party lines. The $35.3 billion spending package would fund the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), among other key programs and federal agencies that support and protect the nation’s natural resources. Overall, the bill would provide $13 billion to DOI, $8 billion to EPA and $3.1 billion to the U.S. Forest Service. The package, which was met with significant opposition from House Democrats due to measures they argue will hinder environmental protections, also includes policy language aimed at reducing regulations from EPA and other agencies.
Of particular importance to counties, the following programs and agencies are funded through the bill:
- Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT): DOI’s PILT Program, which reimburses counties for forgone property tax revenue due to the presence of tax-exempt federal lands within their jurisdictions, would be funded at $500 million for FY 2019. The allocated amount is $35 million above the president’s FY 2019 budget request, but $53 million below FY 2018 enacted funding levels. This reduction occurs because Secure Rural Schools (SRS) payments – assistance to counties affected by the long-term decline in revenue from timber harvests on federal lands – from the prior year will be deducted under the PILT formula now that SRS has been reauthorized. The reduced funding level will bring PILT funding for FY 2019 in line with previous fiscal years. Because local governments are unable to levy taxes on federal lands, PILT payments are critical for supporting essential local government services.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): EPA would be funded at $8 billion under the appropriations package, representing an overall decrease of $100 million from FY 2018 and a reduction of $228 million to EPA’s regulatory programs. The bill would fund EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) program at $1.5 billion, the Drinking Water SRF at $1 billion and the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program at $45 million. As major owners, operators and users of local water resources and infrastructure, counties often utilize these programs to build and maintain key water infrastructure projects. The bill also includes $80 million for brownfield grants and $1.12 billion for cleaning up contaminated superfund sites.
Additionally, the bill would fully repeal the “Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS)” regulation originally finalized in 2015. The 2015 WOTUS rule has been fraught with legal challenges and is currently undergoing revisions at EPA following an executive order by the president in late 2017 directing the agency to review and either rescind or rewrite the rule. As co-regulators and regulated entities under the Clean Water Act, counties have called on EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rewrite the 2015 WOTUS rule in a way that is inclusive of their state and local government partners.
- U.S. Forest Service: The USFS would be funded at $6.1 billion under this package, $3 billion of which would be allocated to fire suppression and prevention. Including these funds, the measure would provide $3.9 billion for wildland firefighting and prevention activities, fully funding the 10-year average for DOI and USFS wildfire suppression costs. Further, $500 million is included specifically for USFS suppression operations, while $655 million would be provided for hazardous fuels management, an increase of $30 million above FY 2018 levels.
- U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM): BLM would receive $1.23 billion in the appropriations package, an increase of $62.5 million over FY 2018. This funding includes $60 million for sage grouse conservation efforts and a $6.16 million increase in funding to promote energy and mineral development on BLM lands. Language is also included that would prevent the listing of the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
- National Park Service (NPS): The National Park Service would be funded at $3.25 billion, an increase of $53 million over FY 2018. The bill includes an increase of $175 million to address the deferred maintenance backlog on NPS lands. Of this increase, $40 million would be directed toward maintenance, repair and rehabilitation projects, while $135 million would be used for deferred maintenance of NPS facilities.
- Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF): Additionally, the bill would provide $360 million for LWCF programs. State and local recreation and battlefield preservation programs would be prioritized under the bill, with 62 percent of this funding directed to NPS State Assistance, Forest Legacy, American Battlefield Protection and Highlands Conservation Act programs.
The bill now heads to the U.S. Senate for consideration, though it is uncertain how the upper chamber’s final version of these appropriations measures will differ from that passed by the House. Once the Senate passes its version, any differences that remain must be negotiated between the two chambers and a final compromise bill must be agreed upon before the end of the fiscal year on September 30, 2018 in order to avoid a partial government shutdown. NACo will continue to monitor developments and engage with Congress and the administration throughout the appropriations process to ensure the needs and interests of America’s counties are reflected.