Where PEC Stands on the Budget

As with every year, PEC continues to monitor the different moving pieces of adopting a state budget. This process includes multiple pieces of legislation, historically connecting everything from what financial resources are provided to agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR) to perform their missions to the citizens of the Commonwealth, to issues wholly unrelated to state fiscal operations – for example, how DEP regulates a particular industry, or how DCNR manages its state park and forest system.

PEC has long held that the state budget process should: (1) ensure that both DEP and DCNR, as well as the Fish & Boat and Game Commissions, have sufficient support to conduct their responsibilities; and (2) not include that riders seek to substantively rewrite environmental protection or conservation laws. Unfortunately, decision makers in Harrisburg have consistently failed both of these principles over the past several years.

Included below is an ongoing list of actions and informational pieces on state budget issues in which PEC is engaged.

The Latest

On Wednesday, September 13, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed legislation (House Bill 453) that, if enacted as part of the state budget, would constitute the largest cut to environmental and energy program funds in the state’s history.

What does this legislation not do? It doesn’t solve Pennsylvania’s ongoing structural deficit.

Here is the roll call vote on the legislation. “Yea” votes were in support of the cuts.

There’s a lot to take in.

First, let’s take a look at the cuts. Thanks to the PA Environmental Digest, we have a breakdown of where monies are being diverted out of special funds to balance the general fund:

  • Recycling Fund: $70 million
  • Environmental Stewardship Fund (aka Growing Greener): $70 million
  • Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund (aka Key 93): $50 million
  • Multimodal Transportation Fund: $50 million
  • Underground Storage Tank Indemnification Fund: $100 million
  • County Conservation District Fund: $2.5 million
  • Industrial Sites Cleanup Fund – $10 million
  • Industrial Sites Environmental Assessment Fund: $7.5 million
  • Energy Development Fund: $3.96 million
  • Environmental Education Fund: $500,000
  • Coal Lands Improvement Fund: $2 million
  • Highway Beautification Fund: $500,000
  • Solid Waste-Resource Recovery Development Fund: $448,000

Total = $317 million

 

A more complete breakdown by the PA Environmental Digest of the legislation itself can be found here. We encourage you to read it, but the numbers speak for themselves.

How did this happen? That’s a good question, and there is no easy or single answer.

Part of it falls to misinformation and misunderstanding. These special fund balances have been characterized by some as “surplus” or “unnecessary”. That is completely untrue – as with any governmental account, special funds ebb and flow with revenue collection, agency and program expenditures, grant reimbursement, and other factors. Anyone who manages personal finance knows that a financial account can look flush one day, only to drain once bills and other commitments come due.

Part of it is failure to recognize what these funds do and why their use is essential. These funds address mandatory legal and statutory requirements. They help local communities tackle problems that cannot be solved alone – clean drinking water, remediation of pollution from abandoned industrial lands, and much more. Many of these are funds were directly approved by the voters of Pennsylvania for specific purposes and public benefit, only now to be taken away. And with that withdrawal, all of the corresponding locally-driven activity stops. All of the leveraged resources and private investment stops. Jobs are affected, people are affected, and communities are affected.

The problems and costs won’t disappear with fund diversions, it’s just that now the burden falls even more on local communities. The Pennsylvania Association of Township Supervisors had a very clear message to House on this – don’t abandon your responsibility at expense of local government. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania made similar remarks. In other words, there are, and will be, real consequences to these diversions.

The vote is now cast, and those House members now stand accountable to it in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.

Part of it falls to desperation – the state’s structural deficit has been a lingering issue for many years. So far, past and current Governors and iterations of the General Assembly have been unable, or unwilling, to find and agree upon solutions that actually fix long term and very steep financial short falls. But diverting monies from special funds is a temporary band aid on a systemic issue, and only deepens the financial and political challenges in the years ahead. In short, these diversions are only temporarily dodging a problem that won’t go away until it is met head on.

And part of it falls to an ideology from some corners of the General Assembly that have little regard for the environment, or the true impact of forsaking decades of environmental progress forged through strong public investment and bipartisan political effort. One legislator made that view clear when he said “we’re erasing thirty years of a lot of peoples’ work around here ….” That intent is now clear.

Lawmakers have difficult jobs. The budget challenges facing our state are not merely ideological, nor are they straightforward.

But that said, this fiscal reality does not excuse decisions being justified through the facade of misunderstanding or misinformation. It does not validate sacrificing critical program funding, needed by communities and widely supported by the citizens of the Commonwealth for their intended purposes, to temporarily mask the state deficit.

We have an inescapable budget problem, but the House’s actions last night are merely a reprise of the same recurring, and misfired, response. The fact that so many in the House are willing to allow impacts to communities and the environment for what they know is not a real solution is beyond troubling. That vote is now cast, and those House members now stand accountable to it in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.

Our Statement

September 18, 2017

To: Members of the Pennsylvania Senate Re: State Budget

Dear Senators:

This week the Senate will be considering options to finalize the state budget, including legislation (House Bill 453) passed by the House last week that, if enacted, would constitute the largest cut in environmental, agriculture, and recreational funding in state history. State agencies (DCED, DEP, and DCNR), as well as numerous local government and community organizations (including PSTATS and CCAP), have detailed the harm resulting from drastic reductions to these funds – some of which were approved by the Pennsylvania electorate for specific purposes.

Of equal consequence, House Bill 453 offers no solution to Pennsylvania’s structural deficit; it is a one-time financial dodge that accepts harm today doing nothing to address the state’s fiscal woes that will return in full force in a matter of months.

We urge you to oppose the shortsighted approach taken by the House and HB 453.

Unfortunately, budget legislation passed by the Senate in July (House Bill 542) and House Bill 118) also has significant problems. In exchange for a severance tax, the legislation includes non- germane riders that: dismantle the permitting authority of the Department of Environmental Protection; subject proposed air quality protections for one industry to a politically appointed review committee; place additional water quality treatment burdens on the public, instead of those discharging pollutants; and artificially extends operating permits for a handful of facilities facing noncompliance with state and federal law.

We urge you to reject this approach as well.

As we have stated in the past, public health and environmental protection are not bargaining chips for enacting a state budget. That is not the representation sought by the voters of Pennsylvania. There are answers to issues facing the regulated community, but eviscerating the budget and authority of DEP is not one of them. That course will only ensure future litigation, challenges to permits, reconsideration of state primacy to implement federal programs, and other difficulties that will impair environmental protection and bog down permitting and reform.

We recognize the incredibly difficult task set before you and the Governor in righting a state budget that is terribly off course. We also acknowledge that there are real issues that must be addressed to ensure both sound environmental protection and economic growth. Both challenges require thoughtful consideration and inclusive decision-making, not rash actions that only deepen the very problems meant to be addressed.

How the Senate elects to proceed will either help secure a better future for all Pennsylvanians, or perpetuate the recurring stalemate that is the true limit of progress and partnership in our state.

Davitt Woodwell
President
Pennsylvania Environmental Council 2124 Penn Avenue, 2nd Floor Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Other recent communications

Op-Ed

A disaster in the making

by David Hess and Davitt Woodwell
Centre Daily Times, August 11, 2017

 

The chaotic state budget process is again moving in fits and starts in Harrisburg. And, again, the public is left to wonder how our environment will bear the brunt of political trade-offs on what should be purely fiscal decisions.

Two years ago, the state leveraged the budget to slow efforts to address climate change. Last year, budget negotiations were used to eliminate new regulations on the conventional oil and gas industry. This year, it appears members of the General Assembly and the governor are willing, in exchange for new revenues in the form of a severance tax, to sell out the integrity of environmental permitting in our state…

PEC Podcast

Pennsylvania Legacies #54: True Colors

Lawmakers took another step this week toward what would be the biggest reduction in state funding for local environment and energy projects in Pennsylvania history. We’ll get an update from the state capitol.

Listen

Pennsylvania Legacies #52: Taking Charge

A legislative raid on special environment & conservation funds may leave communities on the hook for money already spent on local grant-funded projects; Shell agrees to fenceline monitoring at its new ethane cracker; and Hurricane Harvey delivers a stark warning to flood-prone Pennsylvania.

Listen

Pennsylvania Legacies #51: Bird is the Word

August 25, 2017

Mounting opposition to budget riders, DEP’s modest progress toward better clean drinking water enforcement, and good news from the Chesapeake Bay.

Listen

Pennsylvania Legacies #49: The Cost of Doing Business

August 11, 2017

A review of the week’s PA environment news: more backlash against state budget riders, the Mariner East II pipeline moves forward, and could dredging behind Conowingo Dam help clean up the Chesapeake Bay?

Listen

Pennsylvania Legacies #48: Unprecedented

August 4, 2017

A deal struck as part of the state budget process could hamstring the Department of Environmental Protection and put permitting decisions in the hands of unqualified private actors. One former DEP chief warns these amendments would set a disastrous precedent for every state government agency — not just DEP.

Listen

PEC Blog

Where the Environment Currently Stands in the State Budget

July 28, 2017

Earlier this month the General Assembly passed an overall spending framework for the state budget. Governor Wolf allowed this legislation to become law without his signature. Over the past several weeks, negotiations have turned toward how to pay for, and implement, that spending framework.

Yesterday (July 27th) the Senate passed a series of amended House bills that would complete implementation of the state budget. These bills now go back to the House for additional consideration, and further possible amendment, before a concurrence vote occurs…

More

A Bad Solution to the Wrong Problem

July 31, 2017

The Pennsylvania Senate and, by all appearances, Governor Wolf, have struck a deal that aims to mitigate the Commonwealth’s fiscal issues at the sole expense of environmental protections.

What have they done? Essentially, they have proposed to nullify the Department of Environmental Protection’s ability to review and act on applications to alter the state’s air, land, and water by taking the decision away from DEP professionals and, in many cases, farming that responsibility out to private firms. They have done this without public discussion and without setting ground rules. And, despite a supposed increase in conservation and environmental funding, the reality is that these programs actually take a big hit…

More

Our Message to Members

Late last week the Senate quickly amended budget legislation to include a number of provisions that dramatically weaken environmental protections. These provisions include taking permitting review away from the Department of Environmental Protection, and establishing a new legislatively-appointed committee that can reject certain proposals to protect air quality .

You can find a summary of the amendment provisions on our website.

This amended legislation was hastily passed by the Senate, and is now before the state House of Representatives for consideration.

We urge you to contact your Representative this week and let them know that you oppose these harmful provisions. Specifically:

  • That you oppose taking permitting decisions away from the Department of Environmental Protection and handing them to private interests.
  • That you oppose creating a politically-appointed committee that has the ability to reject air quality protections proposed for the natural gas industry.
  • That you oppose forcing the Department of Environmental Protection to approve potentially deficient permit applications solely because they have not made a final decision within a prescribed number of days.
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