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Republicans push big cuts in states’ environmental rules

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Weeks after he was sworn in as governor of Maine, Paul LePage, a Tea Party favorite, announced a 63-point plan to cut environmental regulations, including opening 3 million acres of the North Woods for development and overturning a law monitoring certain toxic chemicals that have been found in children’s products — including sippy cups.

Another Tea Party ally, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, has proposed eliminating millions of dollars in annual outlays for land conservation, as well as cutting to $17 million the $50 million allocated in last year’s budget for the restoration of the dwindling Everglades.

And in North Carolina, where Republicans won control of both houses of the Legislature for the first time in 140 years, leaders recently proposed a budget that would cut operating funds to the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources by 22 percent.

In the past month, the nation’s focus has been on the budget battle in Washington, where Republicans in Congress aligned with the Tea Party have fought hard for rollbacks to the Environmental Protection Agency, clean air and water regulations, renewable energy and other conservation programs.

But similar efforts to make historically large cuts to environmental programs are also in play at the state level as legislatures and governors take aim at conservation and regulation they see as too burdensome to business interests.

LePage summed up the animus while defending his program in a radio address.

"Maine’s working families and small businesses are endangered," he said. "It is time we start defending the interests of those who want to work and invest in Maine with the same vigor that we defend tree frogs and Canadian lynx."

When Republicans wrested control across the country in November, they made clear that reducing all government was important, but that cutting environmental regulations was a particular priority.

Almost all state environmental budgets have been in decline since the start of the recession, said R. Steven Brown, executive director of the Environmental Council of the States,. What has changed this budget season is the scope and ambition of the proposed cuts and the plans to dismantle the regulatory systems, say advocates who are already battle-hardened.

"Historically, we’ve taken pride in being a leader in environmental quality in the Southeast," said Molly Diggins, director of the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club. "But there is now such fervor to reduce the size of the environmental agency. The atmosphere is the most vitriolic it’s ever been."

David Guest, managing attorney for the Florida office of Earthjustice, a national environmental law firm, said Scott’s budget was "the most radical anti-environmental budget" he had seen in two decades of environmental work. Comparing Scott’s proposed changes with those of Florida’s previous Republican governors, including Jeb Bush, he called them "a whole new world."

The strategies have been similar across the affected states: Cut budgets and personnel at regulatory agencies, prevent the issuing of new regulations, roll back land conservation and, if possible, eliminate planning boards that monitor, restrict or permit building development.

In New Jersey, for example, Gov. Chris Christie, another favorite among Tea Party loyalists, has said the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, which preserves more than 800,000 acres of open land that supplies drinking water to more than half of New Jersey’s residents, is an infringement on property rights. Christie has moved to shift power from planning boards and government agencies to administrative judges, political appointees who, environmentalists say, tend to rule more often in favor of developers’ interests.

In Florida, Scott has asked to cut staff members to 40 from 358 at the Department of Community Affairs, which regulates land use and was created to be a control on unchecked urban sprawl.

Lane Wright, a spokesman for Scott, said the cuts would enable businesses to grow again in Florida. The governor "does care about the environment," Wright said, "but feels it is more important to get people back to work."

In the first round of federal budget fights, Republicans appear to have won some of what they sought: $1.6 billion in cuts from the EPA and $49 million from programs related to climate change. But they fell short in other areas.

Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington policy group, said that by his calculation the Republicans had sought nearly $10 billion in cuts related to efficiency and renewable energy but got less than $3.7 billion.

"The Democrats successfully defended investments in clean energy," Weiss said.

The eventual outcome at the state level is much less clear. Florida and North Carolina’s budget battles are in the early stages. In Maine, LePage’s agenda has engendered such an angry response that the newly elected Republican majority in the state Legislature seems to be backpedaling from many of its strongest components.

LePage’s proposal to open the woodlands has not yet been introduced as a bill. And this month the Legislature made a point of enacting a ban on the chemical detected in sippy cups. All but three of the state’s legislators voted for it. (LePage has questioned whether the science is strong enough to support such a ban.)

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s press secretary, acknowledged that LePage had not gotten everything he wanted but pointed to some victories. The governor just signed a law that will reduce restrictions for building on sand dunes, and his proposal to provide incentives to businesses to police themselves on a variety of environmental regulations is still in the Legislature.

‘We will continue to move forward," Bennett said.

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