Earth & Environment

May 14, 2024: Mayor Proposes Deep Cuts to DC’s Environmental Programs

Posted on May 24, 2024 at 12:00 AM

by Jean Stewart, Chair, Environmental Task Force, PPC*

The environmental community in Washington, DC, knew serious budget cuts were coming, as the city’s revenue sources have shrunk. But we had no idea how draconian Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed cuts would be for most of the programs managed by the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and other city agencies involved with reducing the city’s carbon footprint. On May 6, I joined more than 80 public witnesses challenging these drastic cuts—including many that would most heavily affect lower-income residents—at the oversight hearing held by the City Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment on the fiscal 2025 DOEE budget.

I had been encouraged by our city’s forward-looking efforts to address the worst dangers of the climate crisis—longer and more intense heat waves and more frequent flooding from our rivers and creeks—and to reduce harmful emissions from burning fossil fuels to provide power for government and commercial buildings and residential structures. But now I’ve gone from pride to outrage as I see how the Mayor’s proposed budget would, if adopted, devastate environmental justice and equity and turn DC sharply backwards from its outstanding leadership role in fighting climate change. Her deep cuts into present and future environmental and clean energy funds would be damaging to residents and workers, especially those with serious economic and health vulnerabilities.

In my testimony, I specifically protested the proposed defunding of two programs the environmental justice community has worked hard to establish with the strong support of a large majority of the City Council: the Healthy Homes Act (just passed unanimously by the Council) and the Greener Government Buildings Act, enacted last year.

The Mayor proposed raiding already approved funding in the Healthy Homes Act for low- and moderate-income (LMI) residents—families with children, and many older people with health issues—intended to lower utility bills and

to transition from dirty, dangerous, and expensive methane gas. I urged the Council to protect the Sustainable Energy Trust Fund (SETF) money designated to benefit LMI households that want to transition off increasingly expensive energy but cannot afford to do so. The SETF funding for the electrification retrofits provided in the Healthy Homes Act will also trigger substantial matching funds from the President’s environmentally powerful Inflation Reduction Act. Restoring SETF resources for the Healthy Homes Act will provide significant health benefits and help LMI residents to afford to stay in DC, countering some of the pressures causing so much displacement, especially of our communities of color.

The Greener Government Buildings Act requires that new and substantially renovated DC government buildings comply with net-zero carbon emission standards and use no energy produced by combustion—using only energy produced by clean, efficient electricity. But the Mayor’s proposed budget left open the possibility of appropriating no funds to ensure compliance with these standards. With no funding for enforcement, developers of new and renovated buildings would be free to construct buildings—including public housing and schools—that rely on inefficient, costly, and unhealthy energy sources for their lifetimes. Continuing to invest in polluting energy for these buildings would result in a major inequity for the health of those living and working in them while continuing to contribute to DC’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, over 75% of which come from buildings.

I testified because I care deeply about energy equity and justice for all DC citizens, and especially for my neighbors who are most vulnerable to the increasing heat waves and flooding resulting from climate change. On May 10, the Committee on Transportation and the Environment unanimously passed a revised budget that would reverse $20 million of cuts to the SETF. I hope the full City Council will decide to retain this vital funding for the Healthy Homes Act and to include appropriations language to enforce the Greener Government Buildings Act. We must ensure that these laws are more than just pieces of paper.

* Much of this article is drawn from the author’s testimony at the Budget Oversight Hearing for the DOEE held on May 6, 2024.

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