Lawmakers use budget plan to protest insufficient conservation funds

The legislature's budget-writing panel sent a subtle protest to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration over what some argue is inadequate funding for conservation programs:

If those programs remain a target for spending cuts in the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, perhaps they would be safer in another agency?

That was the message behind the Appropriations Committee's recent recommendation to strip $8.6 million and 60 positions from DEEP and move them into the Department of Agriculture, the chairman of Appropriations' subcommittee on conservation and development said this week.

That recommendation was wrapped into the committee's $20.73 billion state budget proposal for the 2012-13 fiscal year.

"The DEEP budgets continued to recommend cuts to conservation funding," Rep. Bryan Hurlburt, D-Tolland, said. "DEEP is clearly saying, if this is a place they are cutting, that it is not a priority."

The fate of hunting, fishing, camping, boating, forestry and state parks programs likely won't be settled for several more weeks. Now that both the Appropriations Committee and the Malloy administration have their respective budget proposals for the 2012-13 fiscal year on the table, negotiators for the governor and legislature will begin meeting behind closed doors to craft a compromise.

But Hurlburt said that even though state finances have gone through difficult times over the past year-and-a-half, he's been particularly disappointed with the direction these programs have followed.

The administration, which inherited a record-setting budget deficit when Malloy took office in January 2011, recommended $8.7 million for conservation programs last year when preparing what is now the current budget  -- about $560,000 less than the level needed to maintain current services. The legislature restored those funds before a final 2011-12 plan was adopted in May.

And this February, the administration -- which faces a modest deficit of $40 million in the current budget -- recommended $8.5 million for conservation programs for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

"What I see is they are not giving these programs the respect or attention they deserve," said Hurlburt, whose district includes Tolland, Ashford and Willington -- three Tolland County towns rich in farmland, forests and open space.

Further complicating matters, Hurlburt added, is that while he has voiced concerns over the past two legislative sessions, DEEP Commissioner Daniel Esty and other top department officials "are not talking to me about this."

The Appropriations panel proposed an additional $100,000 -- tied to lobster restoration efforts -- for conservation programs, and also recommended moving all of that funding into the Agriculture Department.

A final suggestion from the budget panel also would remove those dollars from the general fund -- which holds the bulk of operating funds in the entire state budget -- and place them in a new Outdoor Fund, a special designation designed to protect them from being reassigned for other uses.

An Agriculture Department spokesman declined to comment, but DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain said Thursday that the agency has been and continues to be open to discussing the issue with legislators.

"We believe legislators will ultimately share our opinion that the current structure of DEEP best serves the needs of our state, its residents and everyone with an interest in our environment, natural resources, outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing," Schain said. "State park, state forest, wildlife management, fisheries, boating, open space  and other Environmental Conservation programs benefit greatly from their association and involvement with the other branches of DEEP."

A spokesman for the governor's budget office also said the administration is wary of giving special fund status to conservation program dollars.

"We've tried to discourage the establishment of separate funds," Gian-Carl Casa, undersecretary for legislative affairs at the Office of Policy and Management, said Thursday. "We don't think the budget is as transparent when you have them."

One veteran lawmaker and a spokeswoman for one of the state's leading environmental advocacy groups both said that while they share Hurlburt's concerns about conservation funding, they aren't convinced that taking the programs out of DEEP's hands is the right move.

"I believe that Agriculture and Environmental Protection have very different missions," said Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, a member of both the Appropriations and Environment committees. "As much as I respect the Department of Agriculture, I think things would work better as they are set up now."

Willis predicted that, despite the Appropriations Committee's recommendation, many of her legislative colleagues would take the same position.

"The mission of DEEP is to take a holistic view toward preserving the environment," said Lori Brown, executive director of the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters.

Both Brown and Willis added that while concerns over insufficient conservation funding are legitimate, that problem is not unique to the Malloy administration, but rather has been a trend that goes back about two decades.

"The problem is these programs too often are considered discretionary," Brown said, adding that conservation has borne "more than its fair share" of budget cuts for too long.

"We understand some people are frustrated by what they feel is a lack of resources for environmental conservation programs," Schain said. "That, however, is more a function of a continued tight state budget situation than any lack of concern or focus on these programs within the agency."