Bush’s environment plan gives states leverage

PELHAM, Alabama, Reuters

By Randall Mikkelsen

President George W. Bush promoted his plan to give states more power over environmental spending on Thursday as a poll showed his job approval ratings had declined to new lows.

Speaking at a lakeshore in Oak Mountain State Park near Birmingham, Bush said his proposal to give states US$450 million in unrestricted “block” grants for land and water conservation projects in 2002 would allow them to make their own decisions on how to best protect the environment.

“Federal money is most useful when it comes without strings … We need to give states new flexibility on how to manage their conservation and resources,” Bush said. The plan has so far failed to make progress in Congress.

Bush gave no sign of being worried by a New York Times/CBS News poll that showed his job approval rating at 53 percent, down four points from May and seven points from March. His favorable rating as president hit a new low of 37 percent.

He cited passage of his US$1.35 trillion tax cut as evidence of bipartisan cooperation and a changing tone in government.

“Things are getting pretty good up there in Washington,” he said. He spoke on the lush green banks of Oak Mountain Lake, after tossing a baseball under fragrant pines and picking up a box turtle for a close look.

The grant money Bush proposed is US$340 million more than in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The 36-year-old Land and Water Conservation Fund, which finances state and federal efforts, would for the first time be fully funded at US$900 million including the new spending proposed by Bush.

Bush would let states use their share for activities such as wildlife conservation and wetlands restoration as well as traditional parks and recreation purposes.

Bush has proposed raising federal spending on all conservation programs to US$1.5 billion in 2002, up from US$1.46 billion in 2001.

But to fund the block grants, he would cut an array of federal conservation programs, the most glaring of which is eliminating a grant program for urban parks and recreation that received US$30 million in the current year.

The White House insisted that states would have the flexibility to spend on urban parks if they choose.

“Overall funding goes up, state flexibility goes up, so that those programs will continue to be funded at the discretion of the state,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Conservation groups, already locking horns with the Bush White House over a number of issues, reacted angrily.

“This is just a big slick budget sleight of hand to make it look like he’s doing something good for the environment when in fact he’s reducing money for the environment,” said Debbie Sease, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club.

An Interior Department funding bill passed by the House of Representatives appropriations committee last week lacks the state block-grant funding sought by Bush. It instead provides US$254 million for specified grants. The White House objected to the omission of block-grant funding in a policy statement on Wednesday.

Bush was also scheduled to appear at a political fund raiser in Birmingham and expected to raise US$1.6 million for Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions’ re-election campaign. Bush is working to help Republicans regain control of the narrowly divided Senate following the defection of Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords from the Republican party, which tipped control of the Senate to the Democrats.

After the fund-raiser, Bush was to fly to his ranch at Crawford, Texas, to spend the weekend. It will be his sixth break at the ranch since Bush took office in January.