Gov. Greg Abbott’s veto of state funding for air quality planning means Central Texas leaders now have to fund efforts to keep the air clean on their own. But no one is sure how local stakeholders will offset the loss of $350,000 in state funds every two years.
Abbott cut more than $6 million from the state’s fiscal year 2018-19 budget for air quality planning at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which was then distributed to areas across the state. The cut effectively eliminated TCEQ’s Rider 7 program, which funded local efforts to reduce ozone, said Chris Evilia, Metropolitan Planning Organization director.
The Heart of Texas Council of Governments was an active participant in the Rider 7 program, which used the funds to help model efforts to understand the nature and sources of high ozone days within the Waco region, Evilia said. While federal funding remains, it is only available for regions officially designated as non-attainment, meaning areas that failed to meet state ozone standards, he said.
The area will have to find local tax dollars to put toward the efforts, Evilia said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designates Texas counties as “attainment” or “non-attainment” based on ratings set by the TCEQ. The national ozone standard is a three-year average of 70 parts per billion.
If the data reports an average above that figure for the area, the region may fall into the non-attainment designation and be required to return to compliance.
“The good news is our three-year average is well below that 70 limit,” Evilia said. “So far this year we’re doing OK. We’ve actually had a couple days where we’ve been in the mid-70s. We’ll keep an eye on that since August and September are problem times.”
The county’s three-year average was 64 parts per billion from 2014-2016, Evilia said. There were a few years McLennan County bumped up against the state limit, he said.
“That changes everything in the county from how you have to test your automobiles to economic development restrictions on new companies,” said Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver, who is also an MPO board member.
The area’s ozone monitor station is at Texas State Technical College, and the funding cuts are not expected to impact it.
Ozone is formed when nitrogen oxide, created by burning fossil fuel, mixes with volatile organic compounds on hot, sunny days, which can be inflamed by factories, power plants, and cars, even from far away. Evilia gave the recent update to the members of the MPO, which worked alongside the Heart of Texas Council of Governments and the local air quality board on the efforts.
Locally the area has worked on public relations messages, including Breathe Easy Waco, to encourage residents to proactively help reduce ozone levels and promote cleaner air, said Frank Patterson, Waco-McLennan County emergency management coordinator.
Area leaders will have to find a way to continue to fund efforts as air quality is of importance to local leaders, Patterson said. If the area reaches non-attainment status like some larger cities across the state, local residents could face higher vehicle inspection costs due a required emission check, he said.
An area’s ozone rating also affects economic development, County Judge Scott Felton said.
Felton said companies interested in locating to McLennan County may look elsewhere if the county is in non-attainment status, because the businesses’ costs may increase under the area’s regulations due to failure to meet the state standard.
The county and the city of Waco invest a lot of money in economic development, Felton said, and neither entity wants let those efforts go to waste by letting the ozone rating change.
“We just have to figure out how we’re going to pay for it and who is going to pay for it,” Felton said.
Multiple area leaders characterized the veto as another unfunded state mandate passed down to the local level.
Currently, voters are allowed to petition for a “rollback” election if the increase exceeds 8 percent.
Hewitt City Manager Adam Miles, an MPO board member, said air quality measures started with funding from the federal level. Federal authorities then determined states should fund the efforts. Both the state and the federal government have deemed the matter important enough to create laws and standards, but not important enough to fund, Miles said. And while the state passes on the required costs, state legislatures are looking at limiting the amount cities can increase taxes, Miles said.
Area city councils and the county plan to discuss how to move forward. Air quality control is a national issue that’s now going to be treated regionally, Miles said.
“Money doesn’t just magically appear to do studies. The public has to pay for it somehow,” Miles said.