Tom Petri Speaks About Bipartisan Great Lakes Funding Plan

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Tom Petri Speaks About Bipartisan Great Lakes Funding Plan

Premiere Date: 
July 25, 2013

U.S. Rep. Tom Petri discusses a bipartisan plan to keep Great Lakes restoration funding.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

First, a bipartisan group of six US House members who represent Great Lakes states introduced a package of initiatives this week to protect the lakes. The Great Lakes Ecological and Economic Protection Act would address issues including invasive species, water pollution, contaminated sediment and wildlife protection. The act would also authorize an advisory board whose members represent business, agriculture, environmental groups and academics. The point? To protect the lakes and boost economic growth in the region. But on the same day this bipartisan group introduced these initiatives, a House subcommittee voted to cut existing funding for Great Lakes programs off at the knees, slashing expenditures by 80% as part of the second year of spending cuts under sequestration. As part of our continuing series with Wisconsin Public Radio and the Center for Investigative Journalism, Water Watch Wisconsin, we explore the future of Great Lakes restoration now with Congressman Tom Petri who joins us from Washington. Congressman, thanks very much for doing so.

Tom Petri:

Well, thank you, Frederica.

Frederica Freyberg:

So on the one hand your bipartisan group introduces a beefed-up Great Lakes protection plan, and on the other this House sub-committee approves a plan to cut this existing funding by 80%. What is your reaction to their vote?

Tom Petri:

Well, the fact is that we've had a program, it's been working, and we're-- it's also received cuts. And we're not asking for the sky. We recognize these are tough budgetary times. But we can't just abandon the Great Lakes. We made progress. We're working to stop the invasive species, like the Asian carp, from coming into the Great Lakes. We've helped, through this program, to do a good job of coordinating federal, state and local efforts. And we don't want to abandon that because the Great Lakes, we sometimes take them for granted, but they're very, very important for our region and for our country.

Frederica Freyberg:

Well, it sounds like it would be a bit of an abandonment if this-- if the Great Lakes, kind of, spending programs would be cut from what they are now at $300 million, I understand, which is already kind of a reduction, down to $60 million. How exactly can you kind of enact the kinds of programs that you and your bipartisan group would like to under those kinds of spending limits?

Tom Petri:

You know, the height of spending for this program was in 2010, when it reached $475 million. We're proposing $275 million, which is $10 million less than currently is being spent. To go to $60 million, someone said, well, that would be cutting the Great Lakes down to one lake, basically. It would not be a prudent or wise thing to do, and I will say this. This is an action that was taken in an early stage of the appropriation process. We're going to continue working on it, and I don't think that that's going to end up standing.

Frederica Freyberg:

Because I was going to ask, how do you get kind of the inland house members to sign on to the importance of the Great Lakes and the region, like those that slashed this funding? Because I took a look at the people on that committee, and there were some Minnesota, but generally not the same group, obviously, as was in your bipartisan group that introduced this environmental act for the Great Lakes. How do you get these inland House members to understand the importance?

Tom Petri:

Well, the Great Lakes covers, touches, a huge region, from New York all the way to Minnesota, including Ohio and Michigan and Indiana and Pennsylvania and Illinois. And we can hold our own in national debates, and I think we will. The appropriation process in Washington is a pretty complicated and sometimes frightening one. And the action that was taken by a subcommittee in the House of Representatives is a very preliminary step. It still needs to go to the full appropriation committee and then to the House of Representatives and a similar process in the Senate. And we'll see if the bill actually even reaches the floor of the House of Representatives. The last couple of years, because of different budget resolutions and actions in the House and in the Senate, we've ended up not passing a lot of the appropriation bills, but instead having an omnibus bill at the end of the budget year in September, early October. And I wouldn't be surprised if that doesn't happen again this year. And as that goes forward, you know, we'll be watching it and working on it. We recognize these are tough budgetary times and we've got to be prudent. But prudence doesn't mean sort of jerking around and stopping and starting. That ends up being more costly, not only environmentally, but even in terms of actually the cost of doing projects than having a steady program, maybe with some cuts as we're seeing right now.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, one of the things you want to do in the act that you introduced is reauthorize the Great Lakes Legacy Act that removed contaminated sediment from the Sheboygan River. How many more such projects affecting the Great Lakes are there like that to do?

Tom Petri:

Well, it certainly did help in Sheboygan. It cost them $60 million at the federal level and was a multi-year project to get rid of the contamination. We in our region of Wisconsin, we've had contamination in a number of areas. One of the most important was in the Fox River going from Appleton to Green Bay. There have been efforts to restore beaches and other areas in Milwaukee and in Oshkosh. And this is a resource that local citizens, local governments, can work with in trying to improve the environment and build their economic future by being good stewards.

Frederica Freyberg:

Because how important do you regard the Great Lakes, environmentally and economically?  

Tom Petri:

Well, the Great Lakes are crucial. You can't imagine what our life would be like in Wisconsin or in our region without-- this is the largest body of freshwater by far in the world. It's an international frontier. It links us to the world through the St. Lawrence seaway, and it is of huge importance to provide for commerce and fisheries and tourism in our region. We've been working very hard for a number of years to-- and especially as Milwaukee did with the big dig, for example, to improve the situation so far as discharges into the lake is concerned. And there are a number of ongoing environmental and other programs to make sure that we preserve the Great Lakes and even enhance them. And they're becoming an increasing international tourism attraction. Cruise ships are beginning to populate the Great Lakes. People come from Europe and other places to see the scenes in Wisconsin and Illinois and other areas in the Great Lakes.

Frederica Freyberg:

Congressman Tom Petri, we leave it there. Thanks for joining us on this. We'll be watching.

Tom Petri:

Thank you, Frederica. 


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