House and Senate appropriations committees have approved spending bills to fund the Environmental Protection Agency for fiscal year 2016 that make deep cuts into EPA's water infrastructure program. The bills, which the committees cleared along party lines, also include controversial environmental policy riders that are expected to draw presidential vetoes.
The Senate appropriations measure trims combined funding for EPA's clean-water and drinking-water state revolving funds (SRFs) by 23%, to $1.8 billion, from this year's level. The House bill includes similar numbers: $1 billion for the clean-water SRF and $757 million for the drinking-water fund.
Industry groups say water infrastructure projects will be hurt if the funding levels for the SRF programs remain at the amounts recommended in the Senate and House measures.
Scott Berry, director of the Associated General Contractors of America's utility and infrastructure division, says that, although most wastewater infrastructure projects are financed largely through municipal bonds, the SRF cuts "would definitely mean less grants to states to run the revolving loan programs." Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies vice president of government affairs, says, "The water and wastewater numbers are disappointing, given the need throughout the country. … The reality is, even the current numbers are a drop in the bucket."
The two bills also contain policy riders that are likely to prompt a presidential veto. During the Senate committee's June 18 voting session on the bill, Democrats called the provisions "poison pill" additions that would almost guarantee a veto. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the panel should pass a "clean" bill without any policy riders. But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is also on the Appropriations Committee, countered, "There has been an all-out assault on the American people by EPA."
Berry says the House typically makes larger cuts than the Senate does, and the numbers are increased during negotiations between the chambers. But he adds, "This year, with Republicans in control of both houses, that remains to be seen, but I don't think we'll end up at the House levels."
Some Republicans said they felt compelled to adhere to the 2011 Budget Control Act's tight spending levels. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she recognizes the SRFs' value but added, "Our hands are tied." Several Democrats called for a new House-Senate budget deal, such as the one Rep Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) reached in 2013 to increase caps for discretionary spending.