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.