Congress’ EPA Budget Wrangling Could Hit Pesticide Program

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By Tiffany Stecker

Congress is expected to breeze through the reauthorization of a key law on registering pesticides for use this year.

What’s less certain is whether the chambers will pass a budget that adequately funds the work to put insecticides, herbicides and other pest killers on the market.

The House Agriculture Committee now will take the first step to reauthorize the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act, the 2003 law that provides the Environmental Protection Agency with the legal authority to collect fees from pesticide makers. The committee released a draft (H.R. 1029) on Feb. 15 to replace the current version of the legislation, which expires on Sept. 30.

A coalition of strange bedfellows—environmental groups and pesticide industry interests that are typically at odds on policy—have been making the rounds on Capitol Hill to urge members to support legislation but also back robust funding for the EPA’s pesticides licensing work.

‘We Need to Do a Better Job’

It’s not an easy job, said Phil Klein, executive vice president of the Consumer Specialty Products Association. Republican lawmakers opposed to the agency’s regulatory agenda under President Barack Obama have been sharpening their knives to cut spending at the EPA under the new administration.

But gutting the agency is not a good strategy for the pesticides industry or environmental groups, which depend on the EPA’s licensing office to sell products and review the safety of old chemicals, Klein told Bloomberg BNA.

“We need to do a better job [as] industry to educate lawmakers to why we need stable funding at EPA,” he said.

PRIA has provided a dedicated funding stream to the agency, along with defined timelines for registering pesticides, said Beau Greenwood, executive vice president of government relations and public affairs for the pesticides trade organization CropLife America, which co-chairs the PRIA Coalition with the Consumer Specialty Products Association.

Under the latest iteration, PRIA will allow EPA to raise up to $31 million—an increase from $27.8 million—to maintain the registrations of existing pesticides. For product registration service fees, there will be two scheduled 5 percent increases—one in 2019 and the second in 2021. The draft bill also includes technical changes, such as a proposal to require reauthorization of the bill every seven years rather than every five years.

Office Funding Drops Since 2010

The fees go to the Department of the Treasury, which dispenses the money into a dedicated fund for the Office of Pesticide Programs. PRIA fees support about 25 percent of the pesticide division’s work.

The rest will come from Congress, which sets the budget for the federal government each year.

“The PRIA [fees] can only accomplish so much,” Virginia Ruiz, director of occupational and environmental Health for Farmworker Justice, told Bloomberg BNA. Farmworker Justice depends on PRIA money to pay for safety training materials for farm laborers working around pesticides.

In order for EPA to levy the industry fees, congressional spending for the office must meet a certain threshold. In the 2012 reauthorization of the law, it was increased from $122.8 million in appropriations to $128.3 million.

Industry hoped that, in raising the fees required by industry in the last version of the law, it would encourage Congress to set aside higher levels for the licensing office. But as the trigger level was raised, appropriations have slumped. Spending since fiscal year 2010 has dropped from about $143 million per year to about $120 million. Congress has sidestepped this obligation by issuing waivers that allow the fees to fund licensing despite the low appropriations. The office has also seen a 25 percent decrease in full-time employees in the last three years, said Klein.

Uncertainty About Performance

The Trump administration has yet to set a date for the release of the fiscal year 2018 budget proposal. Congress is set to confirm President Donald Trump’s pick for Office of Management and Budget director, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.). But Trump’s campaign promises to shrink the EPA, along with more recent suggestions from former adviser Myron Ebell that staff levels at the agency should be slashed by two-thirds, is breeding uncertainty about how the pesticides licensing office will be able to do its job.

Despite the rhetoric against the EPA, the coalition is confident it can persuade lawmakers of the importance of the pesticide office’s work.

“We’re all better served by having an agency in the field doing the work it’s supposed to be doing,” Greenwood told Bloomberg BNA.

The committee will mark up the reauthorization bill on Feb. 15, along with H.R. 953, a bill to reinstate a permitting exemption for spraying pesticides over water.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington, D.C. at tstecker@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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