Obama Plan Stresses State Priorities


After years of battles between states trying to curb greenhouse gas pollution and the federal government blocking them, President Obama wants a nationwide limit on carbon dioxide emissions. Not only would the federal government lead the effort, it's banking on it.

In a budget outline released Thursday (Feb. 26), Obama called for nationwide limits to carbon dioxide pollution by 2012. Under his proposal, polluters would have to buy credits at auction for the right to release the gases. That money would go to the federal treasury to pay for clean energy research, aid to communities and Obama's middle-class tax cut.

"President Obama said in his campaign that energy and environment was one of his priorities, and this clearly shows that," said Steve Brown, executive director for the Environmental Council on the States , a nationwide group of state environmental regulators.

It's just one of several abrupt shifts in state-related policies Obama proposed. His administration recommended directing more money to pre-kindergarten, constructing more water treatment plants, offering more help to released prisoners and overhauling the financial aid system for college students.

The broad outlines the administration released Thursday are only a rough draft for a budget. The new administration plans to fill in many details about specific programs and agencies in April. Then it will be up to Congress to write its own spending plan, which likely will include significant changes from the administration's proposals.

Still, the budget shows what the administration plans to change.

On climate change, the administration figures the federal government will collect $646 billion between 2012 and 2019 for carbon credits. That plan assumes Congress would be able to pass a nationwide "cap-and-trade" system quickly, likely by the end of this year. Obama cabinet officials told governors last weekend they hope Congress passes a law by this summer.

The nationwide limits on carbon dioxide pollution would apply to all sources of the problem, including cars and trucks.

That's more ambitious than a cap-and-trade system launched in January by 10 Northeastern states, which restricts emissions only from electricity producers. Obama's vision is more in line with a separate effort by seven Western states and four Canadian provinces, which is also set to take effect in 2012.

On the environment, Obama also called for sending $3.9 billion to the states to help build sewage treatment plants and drinking water plants, especially in small towns. That compares to $1.8 billion in 2007.

Boosting funding for such projects has been a major priority for state environmental regulators, especially because small towns often can't afford to build plants to remove toxins such as arsenic, Brown of the state environmental regulators group said.

"People who live in small towns deserve to have clean water just like people in big cities do," he said.

The education budget proposed to meet Obama's goal of turning out more college graduates by overhauling the financial aid system. Now, 39 percent of people ages 25 to 34 have college degrees; the president wants to boost that to 60 percent.

In a briefing on the new budget Thursday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan also mentioned the stimulus plan's "Race to the Top" initiative to encourage states to rethink their current education systems. The plan would award $5 billion to a limited number of states willing to make dramatic changes. For example, states could align their learning standards with international benchmarks, track how students perform when taught by certain teachers or determine whether individual colleges are producing successful teachers.

"My goal is to take those pockets of excellence, those islands of excellence, and help them become systems of excellence," Duncan said.

The president also proposes increasing the amount of financial aid low-income students could receive through the federal Pell Grant program, which currently helps 6.1 million students. He wants to index the awards to inflation and insulate the program from the congressional budget-writing process by making it an entitlement program, which ensures qualified candidates get grants.

"It is a bold effort to align our financial system more closely with what students actually need to succeed in college," said Lauren Asher, acting president of the Project on Student Debt, an advocacy group pushing for affordable loans.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, the parent organization of Stateline.org , also helps fund the Project on Student Debt.

The budget also includes funding for state education projects: $2.5 billion for a five-year fund to support state efforts to raise college completion rates and an unspecified amount to improve early childhood education.

On crime, Obama added $1 billion to the Justice Department's budget, which includes money for 50,000 more officers for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program - which pays for more local police officers - and $75 million for the Second Chance Act.

The act, backed by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden as senators, offers grants to state and local governments, nonprofits and other groups to help former prisoners adjust to society without committing new crimes. As state budgets shrink and recidivism helps keep prisons full, corrections officials are clamoring for assistance under the law, which President Bush signed last year but which has not been funded by Congress.

"It's really a milestone that Second Chance is included in the president's budget," said Jessica Nickel of the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments , which has lobbied for Second Chance funding. She said it was notable that the Obama administration singled out Second Chance programs as a "real priority area."

The budget, meanwhile, also promises to make the federal government "a better partner" to states and localities on homeland security initiatives, though many questions remain about the new administration's homeland security priorities.

Real ID, for example, the program that seeks to standardize state driver's license standards nationwide, has been a flashpoint in state-federal relations, with many states voicing frustrating over billions of dollars in expected costs and some even refusing to comply with the law. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano - who is now in charge of implementing Real ID - opposed it as governor of Arizona.

On health, Obama said Congress should set aside $634 billion over the next decade to pay for health care program expansions.

This comes after Congress approved an additional $87 billion for states to pay their bills for Medicaid, the state-federal program that covers more than 59 million poor Americans. As one of his first legislative victories, Obama last month signed an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program to cover an additional 4 million children.

Stateline.org staff writer John Gramlich contributed to this report.


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