This week, Congress reached a compromise on a budget bill for fiscal year 2014. But does the bill support a healthy ocean? Let’s just say, if the bill were a marine biology student, it would need to get a tutor.
In the months since last October’s costly government shutdown, Congress has been busily debating how to go forward on major funding issues. Naturally, Ocean Conservancy is concerned with making sure the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – and ocean-related programs in general – will receive adequate money. In the beginning stages of the debate last year, we laid out three critical questions that would determine whether the bill was good for the ocean. When the House of Representatives and the Senate each passed their versions of the bill, we graded them based on these questions.
Now that the two chambers have reached a compromise on an overall (“omnibus”) budget bill, let’s see how well the bill did on the test:
1. NOAA’s topline budget: Does it cover the costs? B+
In fiscal year 2013, the amount of money appropriated to NOAA was pathetic. For 2014, President Obama requested a budget increase for NOAA that would not only fully fund its existing ocean research and conservation programs but propel them forward. Even though the recently-passed bill increases NOAA’s budget from last year’s abysmal levels, it falls short of what the Administration requested by $125 million.
That shortfall increases when you consider that the bill allots $75 million as one-time funding for fishery disaster mitigation. As a result, if you look at the core annual NOAA programs, the effective gap is more like $200 million.
In the end, this year’s budget is better than last year’s budget – and a lot better than what the House originally proposed, which would have resulted in a $525 million shortfall for NOAA. However, it’s far from ideal.
For avoiding the worst outcome and taking a small step in the right direction, we give the bill a “B+” on this question.
2. Is there balance between NOAA’s wet and dry missions? C+
Some good news coming from this bill is that Congress has more than fully funded the National Weather Service. So the “dry side” of NOAA fared quite well.
However, NOAA’s “wet side” programs in the National Ocean Service and National Marine Fisheries Service took a significant hit. NMFS faces a $34 million shortfall while the NOS will have to deal with a $25 million shortfall. These are especially concerning figures considering the fact that these two services represent a large portion of NOAA’s wet side.
Here are just a few examples of what the ocean loses as a result:
- Regional Ocean Partnership grants will be cut completely by the proposed budget, leaving coastal states’ coordinated ocean-use planning completely unfunded.
- Ocean acidification research stagnates. Funds to study ocean acidification will remain at last year’s insufficient (sequestration) levels. This crucially-important scientific research helps coastal communities cope with the growing problem and enjoys broad support.
- Endangered marine species left under-protected. Funding for the Species Recovery Grant Program has declined sharply over the last few years.. This year’s budget increases funding for the program only slightly over 2013 levels, keeping it far below historic levels and at a $12 million shortfall. The program provides money to states to help them manage threatened and endangered species such as right whales, monk seals, southern sea otters, and many other important animals.
For this mixed bag peppered with low spots, we give the bill a “C+” on this question.
3. Does the bill attack the National Ocean Policy? C
While the bill doesn’t explicitly attack the NOP, it conspicuously snubs it. The bill does nothing to help attain the NOP’s goals of smart ocean planning.
The NOP is more than just a NOAA priority; dozens of other federal agencies are involved in its implementation. Congress’s actions make it clear that neither NOAA nor The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, both vital ocean agencies, will receive extra money this year to deal with NOP priorities.
For leaving the NOP hanging, we give the bill a “C” on this question.
The bottom line: While the 2014 budget bill is a slight improvement over 2013 (on the whole) and a huge improvement over the appalling initial proposal from the House, it is far from ideal for our ocean. Overall, the bill gets a C+.