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Published: Friday, 3/17/2006

Taft seeks funds for $20B Great Lakes plan

FROM BLADE STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

WASHINGTON - Gov. Bob Taft appeared before a U.S. Senate panel yesterday for what he said was likely his "last shot" on behalf of Great Lakes governors to get a multiyear, $20 billion master plan for the lakes off the shelf.

Joining him in testifying before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works was a bipartisan coalition that included U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine (R., Ohio); U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.); U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.); Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.).

Several others testified, including George Kuper, president of the Ann Arbor-based Council of Great Lakes Industries; Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office, also based in Ann Arbor; Frank Ettawageshik, of the Little Traverse Band of Odawa Indians, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson.

The hearing coincided with the area congressional delegation's annual Great Lakes Day, typically a pep rally for Great Lakes projects.

Officials said their conviction this year was especially firm, given President Bush's failure to provide any significant new funding source for the Great Lakes collaborative effort he ordered in the summer of 2004. Called the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy, the planning effort involved more than 1,500 public officials, activists, and citizens who spent more than a year coming up with a $20 billion set of cleanup priorities.

Shortly before the plan was released in December, Mr. Bush's

Cabinet advised no new funding for it. That prompted critics, such as U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D., Mich.) to reiterate their belief that the yearlong exercise was just a public relations stunt.

Mr. Bush proposed $49.6 million for sediment cleanup next year, nearly the full amount allowed under the Great Lakes Legacy Act.

But he also proposed whacking the government's main source of funding for local sewer projects - the U.S. EPA's Clean Water State Revolving Fund - by another $200 million. It already had been cut by $360 million for 2006.

Sewage improvements are the biggest-ticket item of the $20 billion Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy.

The plan calls for millions of dollars to help keep Asian carp and other exotic species out of the lakes, as well as money for wetlands restoration, redevelopment of abandoned industrial sites, and other projects.

The Senate panel that took yesterday's testimony is normally chaired by U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.).

But U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio), who preceded Mr. Taft as Ohio governor, called for the hearing and chaired it himself.

"We're running up against a tight federal budget, but the Great Lakes can't wait," Mr. Taft said in an interview with The Blade after the event.

Mr. Bush also has called for a $2 million cut from the Great Lakes Fishery Commission's budget and more than $1 million from the U.S. EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago.

Mr. DeWine said he and Mr. Levin were introducing bills to address several of the funding issues and to reauthorize the Great Lakes Fish & Wildlife Restoration Act, to keep grants coming for fish and wildlife habitat.

Staff writer Tom Henry contributed to this report.



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