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Instead of Trump proposal to cut Chesapeake Bay Program, U.S. House panel passes bill increasing its budget

Instead of adopting President Donald Trump's proposal to all but eliminate the Chesapeake Bay Program, a U.S. House committee voted Wednesday to increase its budget.

The federal program that guides state-by-state efforts to clean up the Chesapeake would get $85 million in fiscal year 2020, up from its longtime funding level of $73 million. Trump has repeatedly proposed cutting the program’s budget by 90%, if not zeroing it out entirely.

The House Appropriations Committee voted 30-21 to approve the budget, along with $17 million in dredging projects around the Port of Baltimore, as part of a larger bill on interior and environment spending.

The bill goes next to the full House for a vote before it could advance to the U.S. Senate, and it’s unclear if or when it could become law. In recent years, partisan bickering has resulted in Congress often funding the federal government with continuing resolutions that extend past levels of funding, instead of entirely new appropriations bills.

But Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, among the Democrats who approved the bill in a party-line vote, said it was nonetheless a positive step toward increasing investment in Chesapeake cleanup.

“The Chesapeake Bay is Maryland’s most precious resource and we must do everything we can to protect it and the hundreds of thousands of jobs it generates,” the Maryland congressman said in a statement.

Rep. Andy Harris, the only Republican representing Maryland in Washington, voted with his party to oppose the bill. A Harris spokeswoman could not be reached immediately for comment.

The Trump administration’s proposed cuts, unveiled in its budget proposal, sparked protests from environmentalists and other stakeholders from across the political spectrum. Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan called the proposal “potentially devastating.”

In early April, the governors of Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia and the mayor of Washington, D.C., joined Hogan in asking Congressional leaders to increase the federal budget for the Chesapeake Bay’s cleanup to $90 million.

Hogan welcomed the committee’s vote on Twitter Wednesday evening: “Pleased to see the House Appropriations Committee has heeded our calls for increased funding for the @chesbayprogram at this critical time for our most precious natural asset.”

Scientists say the Chesapeake’s ecology has been improving steadily over the past several decades, since the bay program was established in 1983.

A University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science report card released Tuesday showed the estuary’s health declined somewhat amid an onslaught of precipitation and runoff in 2018. But the scientists said its health is still on a long-term upswing.

Maryland lawmakers, including Hogan, have stressed that Chesapeake Bay Program funding is important because only the federal government has the authority to push other states to do their part in the bay cleanup.

On Wednesday night, Hogan tweeted: "Pleased to see the House Appropriations Committee has heeded our calls for increased funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program at this critical time for our most precious natural asset. I am calling on the full House to support this common sense action to help us continue our historic progress improving the health of this national treasure."

Sen. Chris Van Hollen called the House vote “good news” but said the larger appropriations process faces a more complicated road through the Senate, where lawmakers haven’t reached a bipartisan agreement on government spending.

“We’ve got a very good case to make that there should be an increased commitment” to the Chesapeake, he said in an interview. “I’m confident that working together with the House, we can increase it above this year’s level. We’ll have to see what the ultimate amount is.”

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