Federal budget deal begins debate over bay funding, medical pot and other Maryland priorities

The federal budget agreement approved early Friday will kick off an intricate debate over several Maryland funding priorities that have been unresolved since President Donald J. Trump took office.

The deal — which ended a brief government shutdown Friday morning — amounts to the first step in the process of deciding whether Congress will accept Trump’s call to eliminate money for the Chesapeake Bay, a pair of high-tech biodefense laboratories in the state and several programs at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

It could determine whether a congressman’s effort to block wind farms within sight of Ocean City’s beaches is successful, and whether Congress will continue to prohibit the Justice Department from spending money to interfere with medical marijuana programs such as the one set up in Maryland.

Congress now has until March 23 to approve appropriations bills for the remainder of the fiscal year, setting funding for specific programs through the end of September.

“Right now, we’ve got a plan — finally — to move forward,” said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

“Democrats received things we’ve been asking for that we thought we could never get,” the Baltimore County Democrat said. “We’re going to have the resources to pull it together.”

The pact, which tumbled its way through the House and Senate in the early morning hours Friday, represented a glimmer of cooperation amid the partisan intransigence that has been exacerbated by the Trump White House. The House approved the bill 240-186 hours after the Senate passed it 71-28.

The votes split Maryland’s congressional delegation: In the Senate, the state’s two Democrats approved it; in the House, all but Ruppersberger opposed it.

“This has obviously been a long time in the making, and it’s a positive step forward,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Many Democrats had sought a commitment that House Republican leaders will take up protections for the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California spoke on the House floor for eight hours Wednesday to bring attention to the issue.

That desire is being driven in part by progressive Democratic voters who feel Democrats have not done enough during negotiations to protect the Dreamers.

“Maryland Senators [Ben] Cardin and Van Hollen promised the thousands in attendance at the Women's March on Baltimore to shield Dreamers from deportation,” said Dave Rodwin, co-coordinator of the Indivisible Baltimore group. “We are counting on them to follow through on that commitment.”

The Senate is expected to pick up that issue next week.

Conservatives, meanwhile, said they were displeased with the amount of new money that would be spent on non-defense programs. Rep. Andy Harris, a member of both the House Appropriations Committee and the conservative House Freedom Caucus, voted against the measure.

“Our budget deficit is approaching a trillion dollars a year. … It’s just not fiscally prudent,” the Baltimore County Republican said.

Perhaps the most closely watched funding issue in Maryland over the next several weeks will be the Chesapeake. The Trump administration has proposed eliminating $73 million in federal money for the bay’s cleanup — an idea that drew sharp criticism from members of both parties in Maryland and Virginia.

Asked about those proposed cuts late last month, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt indicated that the decision was made by the White House, not his agency.

“I seek to be persuasive” with the Office of Management and Budget, which crafts the administration's budget proposal, Pruitt told a Senate committee. “Sometimes I'm not as persuasive as I intend to be. … I believe there has been tremendous success achieved through the program.”

The administration also called for cutting $102 million from NASA's efforts to study Earth, eliminating four missions. Two have at least some implications for Goddard, the 58-year-old Greenbelt institution that employs some 10,000 civil servants and contractors.

One of the Goddard-related programs zeroed out in the budget proposal is the PACE mission — short for Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem. Being tested at Goddard, it would monitor the health of Earth's oceans, including the cycling of carbon.

The Trump administration has also sought to cancel funding for instruments on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite. DSCOVR, or Deep Space Climate Observatory, was launched in 2015. The NASA instruments installed on the NOAA satellite monitor changes in the Earth's ozone as well as the energy reflected and emitted from the sunlit face of the planet.

Harris said the budget agreement, which would set aside $57 billion in new non-defense spending over two years, would mean that all sorts of programs previously on the chopping block would likely receive funding, which he opposes. Harris, who has backed the bay funding, said he could support some portion of that new spending going toward infrastructure.

“That would probably be one of the only appropriate uses of that funding,” he said.

Also in play are several policy amendments that have been languishing for months. One of those, authored by Harris, would require any proposed wind farm off the state’s coast to be built at least 24 miles from the shoreline. The developer of a farm proposed 17 miles off the coast of Ocean City has said that measure would effectively kill the project.

Harris said he would continue to pursue the amendment, but said he is also working with Ocean City officials on other avenues to fight that project.

Congress has regularly used appropriations bills to block the Justice Department from spending money to prosecute medical marijuana businesses. Whether it chooses to do so again in March could have enormous consequences in Maryland, where medical marijuana is now available. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last month that the Trump administration would lift an Obama-era policy that blocked federal authorities from prosecuting those cases.

The budget agreement itself included a number of provisions important for Maryland. The Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health, which awards hundreds of millions of dollars in grant money every year to Johns Hopkins, will receive $2 billion more. Another $6 billion will be dedicated to the opioid crises.

It extends funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which has long enjoyed bipartisan support, for 10 years. Roughly 138,000 children in Maryland have benefited from that program.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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