WASHINGTON – President Obama on Tuesday unveiled a $3.9 trillion budget proposal for fiscal 2015 that would be a mixed bag for Western New York. It proposes the second major boost in northern border customs agents in two years and increased highway funding while suggesting cuts in key Great Lakes programs and heating assistance for the poor.
The proposed budget – like most spending plans from presidents of both parties – will be dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. Nevertheless, Obama’s 2015 spending plan paints a clear picture of his priorities and also points toward some possible areas of bipartisan agreement, most notably on road and bridge improvements.
Unveiling the budget at Powell Elementary School here, Obama said: “It’s a road map for creating jobs with good wages and expanding opportunity for all Americans. And at a time when our deficits have been cut in half, it allows us to meet our obligations to future generations without leaving them a mountain of debt.”
Republicans, predictably, didn’t see it that way.
“This budget is a clear sign this president has given up on any efforts to address our serious fiscal challenges that are undermining the future of our kids and grandkids,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.
Obama’s spending plan projects a $564 billion deficit in 2015, down from $649 billion this year and less than half the level of 2009, 2010 and 2011, when the Great Recession put the federal government in a hole of more than $1.2 trillion annually.
And perhaps most notably on a local level, Obama proposed hiring 2,000 more customs agents in addition to the 2,000 that are to be hired in an earlier 2014 budget agreement. The new agents would be funded through increased user fees at the border.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., both lauded the move as another step toward easing backups at the Peace Bridge and Western New York’s other border crossings.
“The administration is keeping its promise to me by placing funding for 2,000 agents in its budget,” Schumer said, adding that he’s confident that federal officials “will give high priority to the Peace Bridge and Niagara Frontier as these new agents are divvied up.”
The proposed budget suggests spending $302 billion over the next four years on infrastructure improvements – a move that could lead to repairs to deteriorating roads and bridges in Western New York and across the country.
That’s nearly a 50 percent increase in spending from the federal highway bill that’s set to expire Sept. 30.
“This is better than the last several years, but it’s not nearly enough to address the infrastructure problems of the nation,” said Higgins, who has pushed for $1.25 trillion in infrastructure spending over five years.
Then again, the increase that Obama is seeking may be more achievable than a larger package. Coincidentally, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., last week outlined a tax-reform proposal that included an increase in infrastructure spending funded exactly the same way Obama wants to do it: by making companies that make money overseas pay more in taxes.
That’s just part of nearly $1 trillion in new taxes in the Obama budget – which drew the ire of Republicans such as Rep. Tom Reed of Corning.
“The president’s proposed budget raises taxes, increases Washington spending and pushes our country even deeper into debt,” Reed said.
Obama wants to make permanent the New Markets Tax Credit, which has helped bring $180 million in development to downtown Buffalo. Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s Clinical Sciences Center, the Electric Tower, the Oak School Lofts, Ellicott Commons, the Webb Lofts, Asbury Hall and AM&A’s Warehouse Lofts also benefited from the credit.
By making that tax credit permanent, “it’s going to give us the opportunity to be more aggressive about promoting these sorts of projects over the longer term,” Higgins said.
In addition, despite a big cut to Army Corps of Engineers civil works projects nationwide, the spending plan includes $1.67 million for improvements at the Black Rock Channel and Tonawanda Harbor and an additional $1.29 million for work at the Buffalo Harbor.
The budget plan’s Buffalo-specific good news just about ended there, however.
The spending plan would cut funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative from $300 million to $275 million. And perhaps more ominously, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund – which communities rely on for improvements to prevent sewage overflows into lakes and streams – would be cut by almost a third, to $1 billion.
“A lot of work remains to restore the Great Lakes to health,” said Todd Ambs, campaign director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “Cutting funding now will only cost us more later, because projects will get harder and more expensive the longer we wait.”
The cuts in Great Lakes funding were among several that Obama proposed that could hit hard locally.
For example, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program – a longtime target of budget-cutting presidents of both parties – would see its funding cut from $3.4 billion to $2.8 billion. About 100,000 families in Erie County alone receive aid under that program.
In addition, Community Development Block Grants, which provide several million dollars of funding to the City of Buffalo every year, would be trimmed by $205 million, to $2.837 billion.
Meanwhile, biomedical research funding – which is important both to Roswell Park and the University at Buffalo – would get $30.2 billion, a bit short of the $32 billion Higgins was pushing for.
Higgins said the Obama budget also serves as a warning to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, as the spending plan proposes another round of base closures in 2017.Earlier base-closure commissions twice proposed closing the Niagara base, meaning that the base’s supporters may have to get ready to fight again, Higgins said.
Overall, Higgins said the Obama budget was a disappointment.
“These are suboptimal outcomes in a federal budget that has the potential to do more things to grow the American economy,” he said.
Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, criticized the Obama budget proposal, too, but for entirely different reasons.
“It’s a Christmas tree and a wish list” aimed at boosting funding to key Democratic constituencies in an election year, Collins said, adding that Obama’s spending plan “never balances.”
President’s proposal would:
• Hire 2,000 customs agents to speed traffic at border crossings.
• Increase funding for road and bridge repairs over four years.
• Make permanent a tax credit that has helped revive Buffalo.
• Decrease funding for Great Lakes cleanup by $25 million.
• Cut funding for low-income heating assistance.