Cuts and diversions in the budget just adopted by the state have dramatically reduced spending for environmental and natural resource programs in Pennsylvania by $347 million in just one year according to Donald S. Welsh, President & CEO of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.
“The unprecedented 26 percent cut in the Department of Environmental Protection and 18 percent cut in Department of Conservation and Natural Resources budgets raise significant doubts about the capacity of both agencies to fulfill their missions,” said Welsh. “Environmental programs for some reason seem to have been singled out for cuts that go way beyond the average 9 percent suffered by other agencies.”
The General Fund budget of DEP was cut $58 million, or 26.7 percent, with most of the cuts coming in line items used to fund staff positions. Over 300 positions are at risk of being eliminated as a result of these cuts.
DCNR’s General Fund budget was cut $21 million, or 18.5 percent, with again many of the cuts coming in personnel line items. There are about 160 positions at risk of being eliminated at DCNR.
“Of great concern is the diversion of $234 million from the Oil and Gas Fund to the General Fund that was earmarked for improving recreation and access to our State Parks and Forests,” said Welsh. “Taking the proceeds from mineral rights sales away from conservation programs erases 55 years of precedent in Pennsylvania.”
$174 million was transferred from the Oil and Gas Fund to balance to 2008-09 budget, and $60 million is to be transferred to balance the 2009-10 budget. Another $180 million is set to be used from the Fund to balance the 2010-11 budget as well.
“Adding to these diversions is the requirement in the budget to lease thousands of acres of State Forest land for Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling to raise the money needed for the diversions,” said Welsh. “It is a sad day for the Commonwealth when we are selling off our natural resources to balance the budget.”
A bill accompanying the budget requires the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to lease as many acres as necessary to yield $60 million in revenue to balance the budget. There is no cap on the acres to be leased or a minimum bid price. This provision of the budget would have been even more destructive had it not been for the leadership of a bi-partisan coalition of House members who vigorously fought to protect state lands from unmitigated extraction.
“These cuts are bad enough on their own, however, they are only the latest in a series of cuts or diversions over the last several years,” said Welsh. “Funds for watershed restoration, abandoned mine reclamation, wastewater plant operations, storage tank cleanup, diversions from the Keystone Recreation, Parks and Conservation Fund and more have all gone to balance the budget.”
Here is the list of cuts and diversions over the last seven years:
– $376 million in Act 339 grants intended to support wastewater plant operations were eliminated to balance the budget;
– $174 million diverted from the DCNR Oil and Gas Fund to balance the 2008-09 budget;
– $79 million cut from the DEP and DCNR General Fund budget during 2009-10 fiscal year;
– $60 million diverted from the DCNR Oil and Gas Fund to balance the 2009-10 budget;
– $100 million in 2002 from the Underground Storage Tank cleanup insurance fund to balance the budget (although this is slowly being repaid over 10 years);
– $52.7 million “one-time” diversion from the Keystone Recreation, Parks and Conservation Fund in 2006 to balance the budget;
– $50 million in 2007 and 2008 from the Environmental Stewardship Fund, which supports mine reclamation and watershed restoration, to fund the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Program because there was no agreement on how to fund that program;
– $50 million in 2007 and 2008 from the Environmental Stewardship Fund to pay debt service on the Growing Greener II bond issue and taking funding away from restoration projects each year for the next 25 years – reflecting a pattern of only environmental programs being required to address their own bond debt service;
– $15 million from the Recycling Fund in to balance the 2008-09 budget;
– $18.4 million put into budgetary reserve in 2008-09 from the Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources; and
– $5 million reduction in Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) farm conservation tax credit program in FY 2009-10.
“Before last week’s budget was adopted, we were already below the point of providing sufficient funding for environmental and conservation programs; programs that protect public health, rebuild our communities, and sustain our state’s quality of life,” said Welsh. “Its time to stop ignoring the need for additional, long-term revenue sources like a natural gas severance tax. Without rebuilding adequate investment, we cannot hope to meet our legal obligations to cleanup our air and water or take care of the natural resources in our public trust.”