Congress Is Forcing Team Obama to Withhold Funding From the South

The administration has a plan to give more money to Southern states for clean-air protection, but lawmakers block it every year.

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 12: U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) (R) speaks as Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (L) listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill January 12, 2010 in Washington, DC. The Republican legislators briefed the media on a recent Congressional delegation to Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
2010 Getty Images
Jason Plautz
March 27, 2014, 1 a.m.

Ro­ger Wick­er has a bone to pick with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The South­east — the re­gion that the Mis­sis­sippi Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or calls home — has 20 per­cent of the na­tion’s people. But when it comes time for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to dole out cash for a clean-air pro­gram, the South­east only gets 12 per­cent of the pro­gram’s fund­ing, Wick­er said.

And so, when En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency head Gina Mc­Carthy came be­fore Con­gress to testi­fy Wed­nes­day, Wick­er fi­nally got a chance to vent his frus­tra­tion. “How can EPA con­tin­ue to de­vel­op strict new rules and stand­ards while at the same time lim­it­ing ac­cess to re­sources for the states to get their fair share?,” Wick­er asked.

Grilling ad­min­is­tra­tion wit­nesses is stand­ard fare for op­pos­i­tion party sen­at­ors, but this time, Wick­er’s in­ter­rog­a­tion didn’t go as planned.

Asked why the ad­min­is­tra­tion is giv­ing EPA the short end of the stick, Mc­Carthy’s an­swer was simple: Be­cause you are mak­ing us do it that way.

The re­gion-by-re­gion dis­tri­bu­tion of the “State and Tri­bal As­sist­ance Grants” pro­gram is set by a dec­ades-old for­mula, but lan­guage in Con­gres­sion­al budgets has blocked the ad­min­is­tra­tion from mak­ing any changes. EPA couldn’t change the grants around even if it wanted to, Mc­Carthy said.

“We have been look­ing to do that over a peri­od of time. Con­gress has ac­tu­ally provided lan­guage in our budget that did not al­low us to do that last year,” Mc­Carthy said.

If Con­gress wants a new dis­tri­bu­tion, Mc­Carthy said, law­makers will have to change the way they con­tinu­ally write her agency’s budget. “We’ll see what hap­pens in fisc­al year ‘15,” she said.

The for­mula was de­veloped un­der the 1990 Clean Air Act amend­ments, but it hasn’t been up­dated to ac­count for pop­u­la­tion shifts, emis­sion dis­tri­bu­tions, or oth­er factors. That means that states like Wick­er’s are giv­en fund­ing based on their pop­u­la­tion dec­ades ago, while states in the North­east are col­lect­ing more money be­cause they had more ser­i­ous pol­lu­tion prob­lems that have since been ad­dressed.

EPA pro­posed an up­dated fund­ing ap­proach in 2010 that factored in pop­u­la­tion changes and gave it more flex­ib­il­ity, but Con­gress spe­cific­ally blocked the change in the agency’s budget. And they’ve kept that change from be­ing made every year since.

And so, for Wick­er, the is­sue has come full circle. An aide to the sen­at­or said he would work with “his col­leagues, and the EPA, to ad­dress this fund­ing dis­crep­ancy” as they work on the fed­er­al budget.

But chan­ging the for­mula won’t be easy — it would re­quire some law­makers to sur­render fund­ing their states cur­rently en­joy.

Bill Beck­er, pres­id­ent of the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation for Clean Air Agen­cies, said that the new for­mula has proven con­tro­ver­sial be­cause it will mean that some states would end up los­ing money at a time when over­all grant fund­ing is dwind­ling.

“They would be hit twice,” said Beck­er, whose group rep­res­ents air of­fices in 45 states. “The con­verse is those states who would come out as ‘win­ners’ un­der a new for­mula feel they have been ‘los­ing’ over the past 20 years due to an out­dated for­mula. They keep los­ing un­til the for­mula is re­vised.”

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