$380 billion in savings?
From federal beach projects to loan guarantees for a South Texas nuclear site, the United States can cut some $380 billion out of its budget and help clean up the environment at the same time, a coalition of environmentalists and conservatives argue.
The proposed cuts described in the Green Scissors 2011 report include more than $19 billion in Texas projects and expenditures, and focus on eliminating subsidies to corporations and programs such as loan guarantees and insurance.
The group aimed their remarks at lawmakers this week, including Congressman Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican and co-chairman of the Congressional debt “super committee” charged with trimming $1.5 trillion out of the federal budget.
“Government is the biggest entity around and, simply by virtue of its bulk, the entity most likely to be destructive of the natural environment,” said Eli Lehrer, vice president of the Heartland Institute, brandishing a huge pair of plastic green scissors at a news conference in Austin.
The group plans to travel across the country to other states in which its target projects are taking place, including Missouri and Louisiana.
The state Capitol will be the battleground for focusing budget cuts on such projects and subsidies when the state Legislature convenes in 2013 and faces what one local lawmaker said would be another budget crisis.
And while the projects have their individual defenders, as a whole, it's a politically popular stance to propose slashing subsidies and pet projects — though, not all that ironically, Texas has yet to pass much of the Green Scissors group's state-level agenda in previous sessions.
Created by the liberal Friends of the Earth and the conservative Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Green Scissors project has a 16-year history of marrying the interests of small-government groups with those of traditionally left-wing environmentalists.
In this report, released in August, it was joined by the environmental watchdog group Public Citizen and the conservative Heartland Institute — both of which say the proposals strike the very core of their respective missions: to clean up the Earth and to shrink government spending.
Tree-hugging lefties throwing their arms around slash-and-burn righties? To paraphrase the famous Ghostbuster, Dr. Peter Venkman, it's a sign of the apocalypse: mass hysteria, rivers and seas boiling, 40 years of darkness. Dogs and cats lobbying together.
The group plays upon its unlikely bedfellows approach and proudly acknowledges that they are diametrically opposed to each other on nearly every other topic — except subsidies they consider to be ineffective or harmful.
“The simple message here is that liberals and conservatives together are saying, ‘Enough wasteful government spending on propping up corporations and projects that are not commercially viable on their own and never would have been funded by private industry [...] and should never have been funded by the government,’” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of Austin-based Public Citizen.
Among the Texas projects the group lambasted were the South Texas Project Electric Generating Station in Matagorda County, which has sought investment for nuclear reactors as part of a project that started with a $5.6 billion budget and has grown to cost taxpayers upwards of $18 billion.
It is one of several nuclear projects across the nation that are subsidized by the government for a total of nearly $50 billion, the report said, even though the site has been rejected by myriad investors, both public and private.
“Even Austin, with its proclivity to giving subsidies to anything that’s not coal or natural gas, took a look at this power plant in South Texas and walked away from it,” Smith said, adding that the city cited the risk of cost increases.
Two others are flood control and other projects surrounding the Trinity River between Dallas and Fort Worth, amounting to nearly $1 billion in federal funds.
Federal programs to replenish beaches, including those along the Texas coast, were also on the list of proposed cuts.
While some state officials have guarded those programs, saying they’re vital to property values along the Coastal Bend — known by real-estate marketers as the Texas Riviera — the Green Scissors report says they largely amount to pouring hundreds of millions of dollars worth of sand onto a beach, only to have it washed away with the tides.
Conservative members of the group pointed to government insurance programs for floods and crop loss, as well as programs that reduce liability for nuclear power and energy-related disasters. Expenditures, they said, were nothing short of corporate welfare.
The idea of killing off subsidies is an attractive one to many free-market supporters, who say that the moment the government starts tipping the scale in favor of a particular industry or corporation, the term “free market” is tarnished.
“Taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for bad business decisions,” said Talmadge Heflin, director of the Center for Fiscal Policy at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, adding that he was at Green Scissors news conference “out of curiosity.”
“Our free market system should live and die on its own merit. I think we’ve accepted federal government subsidies for way too long, and I’m glad somebody is looking at where they need to be trimmed back.” she said.
Heflin added that the issue of “pet projects” crosses party lines. He would know: well known as the state’s foremost budget guru, Heflin, a Republican formerly of Houston, was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in 2003, when the state had to make some $10 billion in budget shortfalls — and neither party got out of that process, nor the following election cycle, unscathed.
The group’s focus is on federal subsidies now, but they plan to zero in on state programs during the 2013 legislative session.
“I’m looking forward to looking over the report,” said Texas state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs. “If I can glean some things out of this report that would apply to the state, it’s a win-win.”