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Sunday, January 21, 2024

McKee’s Budget Offers Only Modest Increases to Environmental Programs

Big talk, but little funding

By Rob Smith / ecoRI News staff

Where's the money, Dan?
Environmentalists and advocates yearning for bigger environmental investments on the part of the state are going to be disappointed this year.

Under the $13.68 billion budget proposal released Thursday afternoon by Gov. Dan McKee, state environmental priorities would only see modest increases to existing programs, and a typical green economy bond proposed for the November ballot.

State officials have stressed for weeks that, while the state was narrowly avoiding a recession, with the end of pandemic federal funds, many state agencies were going to have to live within their means.

Brian Daniels, director of the state Office of Management and Budget (OMB), told reporters Thursday that all state agencies were told to strictly limit their budget increases without very good reason.

“If [your agency] was asking for more than a 2.6% increase, you are contributing to the state deficit,” Daniels said.

The state’s environmental agencies, the Department of Environmental Management and the Coastal Resources Management Council, account for 1.1% of total state budget expenditures.

Here’s what’s in the governor’s budget proposal for the environment:

Departments and agencies

The biggest news from Thursday’s budget rollout is that the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority could see its deficit cut in half. The governor’s office has proposed transferring $10 million in State Fiscal Recovery Funds to the ailing transit agency’s operating budget, which would functionally halve RIPTA’s deficit, which is just under $20 million.

State officials said the agency would have to use some of that allocation to pay for an “efficiency review,” to close the rest of the funding gap, but did not specify whether the review would result in cuts to RIPTA’s services or overall budget. Officials did note that RIPTA’s ridership has declined 47% since 2008, while service expenses have increased.

While the governor’s budget included $500,000 for the e-bike rebate program run by the state Office of Energy Resources (OER), it allocates no money to further endow the electric vehicle program. Instead, the governor’s office suggested lawmakers look into funding the program if revenue projections later this spring improved enough to afford it.

DEM would receive a dozen new employees under the governor’s proposal, but not in the areas you might think. As proposed, DEM would receive 12 full-time employees to staff the state’s parks and beaches both during and outside the summer season, as the agency sees increased usage of state lands into the fall.

“The summer season isn’t really the summer season anymore,” DEM director Terry Gray told ecoRI News after Thursday’s budget briefing. “It’s still hot after Labor Day and we need to accommodate that.”

The department would also be allocated another $100,000 as part of the Litter-Free Rhody program, an anti-litter campaign proposed by the governor last year in place of abolishing the litter tax paid by commercial businesses. A DEM spokesperson told ecoRI News earlier this month the details of that program were still being finalized, but specifics would be determined soon.

Unusual for a state budget, CRMC will be getting just a little more funding; $25,000 more, to be precise. The governor’s proposal sets aside that amount for the coastal agency to provide marker posts, signs, pamphlets, and other materials to educate the public on the new shoreline access law effective last year. All other budget line items and staffing remain level from the previous year.

A new green bond

The governor’s budget proposes a $50 million Green Economy bond — ultimately subject to voter approval in November — to fund a number of environmental projects.

Twenty million of the bond money would go toward making additional infrastructure improvements at the Port of Davisville, including money for new roads, and completing a space for cargo to be offloaded. The projects would upgrade World War II-era infrastructure, according to the proposal, and would position the port better for the offshore wind industry.

Another unusual item for the green bond: $8 million to restore and improve the resiliency of the Newport Cliff Walk. In 2022, coastal erosion claimed about 30 feet of the iconic 3.5-mile coastal trail, making that portion of the path inaccessible.

State budget officials noted the actual cost of repairing the damaged section would cost significantly more, and the figure cited for the green bond would only be the portion the state is kicking in.

The remaining $22 million left for the green bond is more familiar to voters. The governor has proposed $10 million for financial assistance to municipalities to improve the climate resilience of their infrastructure, vulnerable habitats, and floodplains. 

A separate portion of the bond, around $2 million, would provide for matching grants to public and nonprofit entities to improve the resiliency of floodplains, habitats, and rivers and streams.

The bond would allocate another $5 million to DEM’s successful brownfields remediation program to provide matching grants to public, private, and nonprofit entities to clean up polluted sites for redevelopment and re-use. The state is estimated to have between 10,000 and 12,000 abandoned industrial sites that fit the brownfield description.

Lastly, the bond would allocate another $5 million for up to 80% matching grants for municipalities to acquire or improve local recreational facilities.

New recycling facility

There’s one last big investment with environmental impacts. The governor proposed a capital improvements budget of $55 million over three years, starting in 2026, to build a new materials recycling facility (MRF).

The current facility, owned and operated by the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, is more than a decade old, and is responsible for sorting and processing all of the recycling sent to the Central Landfill in Johnston. The governor’s budget includes $1.3 million for a new main scale house, and $3 million to design the new MRF facility.