Wisconsin lawmakers cut environmental protection funding more than any other state over the past decade, according to a new study of state pollution control programs.
Adjusting for inflation, Department of Natural Resources spending on programs designed to protect public health and the environment from pollutants was cut 36% between 2008 and 2018, according to findings of the Environmental Integrity Project.
The cuts came as the federal government was cutting Environmental Protection Agency budgets and shifting more responsibility onto the states, said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the nonprofit group and a former director of enforcement for the EPA.
Schaeffer said the cuts occurred amid a growing economy in which polluting industries are rapidly expanding, generating permit applications that can run more than 1,000 pages.
“Either permits get rubber stamped, which we expect is the case, or the backlog of applications piles up,” Schaeffer said. “Nobody wins in a situation like that.”
Meanwhile, Schaeffer said thousands of violations have occurred with no enforcement and even more go undetected because federal and state agencies lack the resources to find them.
“It’s past time to give both the EPA and state agencies the resources they need,” Schaeffer said.
The report found cuts occurred in 30 states under both Republican and Democratic control.
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Environmental protection spending fell 25% in Illinois and almost 19% in Iowa. Spending was up by 1.5% in Minnesota and 5.7% in Michigan.
According to the report, in fiscal year 2008, Wisconsin spent $91.4 million on environmental protection, which would be the equivalent of $107 million in 2018 currency. Spending as of last year was just $68.9 million.
During that same time span, total state spending, adjusted for inflation, rose 14%.
Nearly all the cuts happened between 2011 and 2018 under unified GOP control. The steepest declines came in 2017 and 2018.
Spending also fell about 12% from 2008 to 2009, when Democrats were in charge, but rebounded the following year.
The study focused specifically on funding for environmental protection and did not include spending on other DNR activities such as parks and wildlife management or capital spending projects.
The report was assembled from state budget documents. Tom Pelton, director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, said Wisconsin did not respond to a request to review the conclusions.
DNR communications director Sarah Hoye declined to comment Thursday on the report or the accuracy of the numbers.
The chair of the Senate committee that oversees the DNR, Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, did not respond to a request for comment.
A staff member said Rep. Joel Kitchens, a Sturgeon Bay Republican who heads the Assembly’s environment committee, was not available to comment on the report Thursday.