Republicans risk 96 jobs to attack Colorado’s clean air plan

Republicans on Colorado’s Joint Budget Committee put clean air and almost 100 jobs at risk Tuesday when they launched a war against critical environmental funding. 

The Republican half of the six-member committee refused to grant the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment access to $8.5 million, which had already been set aside in a state bank account, for operations related to clean air. The budget passed committee Thursday despite the cuts and will move to the House next week.

As it stands, the 2016-2017 budget means that 96 existing clean air jobs with the CDPHE will be slashed by July 1. The current budget will also eliminate the state’s Clean Air Program, which makes the state susceptible to federal intervention: If Colorado doesn’t have a functioning air quality agency, the EPA will very likely step in and regulate — a conservative’s nightmare.

“It is shocking that Republicans would take their blustery, ideological war against clean air protections to this level,” Pete Maysmith, the executive director of environmental group Conservation Colorado, said in a statement.

“As if it weren’t enough to stand in the way of cutting carbon pollution, they have now put the jobs of nearly 100 of our state’s public servants on the chopping block,” Maysmith said.

Environmentalists largely believe that the Republican’s blockage is “payback” for Gov. John Hickenlooper’s support of the Clean Power Plan, which the Supreme Court has yet to approve. But according to Will Allison, director of the CDPHE’s air pollution control division, the consequences will reach far beyond the controversial plan.

For one thing, “The overwhelming majority of jobs that [would be cut] have nothing to do with the Clean Power Plan,” he said. “We don’t have any staff members working exclusively on the Clean Power Plan.”

For another, the CHPHE hasn’t asked for any more funding to help implement the Clean Power Plan. The employees whose jobs are at risk have simply worked collaboratively to prepare for the federal plan in addition to their normal responsibilities — which include issuing permits and conducting inspections — without pay increases. Suddenly cutting funding now, Allison said, “makes no sense.”

“It’s disappointing that issues like this can become so partisan,” Allison said.

Democrats on the Joint Budget Committee are confident that the missing funds will be reinstated next week when the Democrat-controlled House takes over. But the partisan fight Republicans put up against it is still troubling to environmentalists.

“The budget is going to the House next week, where assumedly the funding will be put back in,” said Jessica Goad, Conservation Colorado’s communications director.

But when it heads to the Republican-controlled Senate? “It’s anybody’s guess what will happen there,” Goad said.

Lawmakers could not be reached for comment in time for publication. But a recent tweet from Senator Kevin Grantham, a member of the budget committee, lends support to the popular argument that this fight has purely political roots.

“The [Joint Budget Committee] has closed the 2016-17 budget,” the Republican senator tweeted Thursday. “Let the games begin!”

Photo credit: fish_boun, flickr creative commons