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Trump budget would decimate Great Lakes initiative

WASHINGTON – Less than five weeks after President Trump vowed that his fight for border wall funding "won't affect Buffalo at all," he proposed a fiscal 2020 budget with $8.6 billion in new wall money – along with a 90 percent cut in Great Lakes funding, the elimination of the program that brings Buffalo its largest chunk of federal cash and the end of federal heating aid for the poor.

That being the case, the spending plan Trump released Monday received a less than warm reception from local Republicans and Democrats alike.

Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican, offered a mixed review of Trump’s budget, noting that he had “some broad agreements in regards to the border security issue.”

“But,” Reed added, “I do disagree with the president's budget when it comes to certain items – the minutiae if you would," such as the cuts in Great Lakes funding.

Democrats control the House now, and Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said they will lead the fight for Western New York priorities that include the heating aid program and the Great Lakes funding.

Asked about Trump's vow from early February in the context of his new budget, Higgins said: "He's not reliable ... I think what he's doing is pushing Democrats and Republican members of Congress together toward the goal of restoring some very important programs."

In his budget message, though, Trump said it makes perfect sense for him to push for billions to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border while seeking cuts in most domestic spending programs.

"As president, my highest duty is the defense of our nation — which is why finishing the border wall is an urgent national priority," Trump said, adding: "We must protect future generations from Washington’s habitual deficit spending."

Trump says border wall funding 'won't affect Buffalo at all'

To that end, Trump asked federal agencies to cut their budgets by at least 5 percent.

But the cuts in programs important to Buffalo are in many cases much deeper. For example:

  • Funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative – which is largely responsible for the Buffalo River cleanup and other such efforts – would go from $300 million in funding this year to only $30 million in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
  • The budget for the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains waterways in metro Buffalo and around the country, would be cut by a third.
  • The Community Development Block Grant, which provided Buffalo with $13.7 million for use in projects across the city last year, would be eliminated.
  • The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which serves nearly 70,000 Erie County families, would end.
  • The National Institutes of Health budget would be trimmed by 12 percent, which would probably translate into funding cuts for Roswell Park Comprehensive Comprehensive Cancer Center.
  • Medicare, which provides health care for thousands of Western New York seniors, would be cut by $845 billion over a decade, mostly by reducing payments to hospitals and doctors.

Many of Trump's suggestions, including the Great Lakes cuts and the elimination of heating assistance, have been proposed before, only to be rejected by previous Republican Congresses.

"It seems like it's Groundhog Day every year," said Dottie Gallagher, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

Gallagher will join leaders of chambers of commerce from across the Great Lakes region on a White House visit Thursday to lobby against the cuts in Great Lakes funding and to fight for other shared priorities, such as infrastructure funding, immigration reform and fair trade.

Meanwhile, the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition will focus its efforts not only on preventing cuts to the Great Lakes initiative, but also stopping proposed reductions in federal aid for local water systems and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The Trump Administration’s budget fails the Great Lakes and the communities which depend on them for their drinking water, public health, jobs, and quality of life," Chad Lord, the coalition's policy director, said in a news release.

President Donald Trump's $4.75 trillion budget blueprint on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 11, 2019. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

House Democrats and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, are likely to try to protect funding for the Army Corps, the Community Development Block Grant and LIHEAP.

"This is a reminder that it's not the president, but Congress that has a constitutional authority to make a budget," said Higgins, who said he would fight the proposed cuts in funding for the National Institutes of Health, fearing their impact on Roswell.

Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican who remains in his seat as he fights charges of insider trading, said he would continue to fight for local priorities.

"While I do agree with President Trump that we need to get the federal government’s fiscal house in order, his budget is basically a message to Congress laying out the administration’s priorities for the country," Collins said in a statement Tuesday. "Ultimately, Congress and the President must agree on government spending, and I will fight for priorities such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, LIHEAP (the heating aid program), and other important Western New York initiatives."

Perhaps no part of Trump's budget caused greater shock among local lawmakers than his proposed $845 billion in cuts in Medicare, along with even larger cuts in Medicaid, the state-federal health program for the poor and the lower middle class.

Those cuts angered Schumer.

"Candidate Trump promised no cuts to Medicare and Medicaid," Schumer said. "President Trump wants to cut them by more than $2 trillion. The challenges of office sometimes prevent presidents achieving what they campaigned on, but this is the opposite of what Donald Trump said."

Nevertheless, those proposals seemed to create less concern among local lawmakers than some of Trump's other suggested cuts. Democrats said the Medicare and Medicaid cuts are too big to ever pass.

"We're going to strengthen Medicare, not cut it," tweeted Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a New York Democrat.

Reed said he was not overly concerned because there are savings to be found in Medicare – for example, by working to reduce prescription drug costs.

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