PA’s State Budget – Will the Environment and Conservation be Dissed Again?

June is budget month in Harrisburg, and that means a year’s worth of fiscal numbers and news come to a head through many different moving parts. While 2017 is a different year, we are again faced with daunting numbers and the outlook remains grim for environmental spending.

The backstory to this is more than a decade of cuts to conservation and environmental programs in Pennsylvania, drastic proposed cuts at the federal level, and a $2.8 billion state budget deficit. On top of this, Pennsylvania’s best resource to leverage private investment in removing legacy pollution and building community projects – Growing Greener – is essentially tapped out.

Today’s problems are the cumulative result of years of decisions – and inaction – spread across multiple Governors and sessions of the General Assembly. What is clear, however, is that the environment has been disproportionately neglected by leadership in Harrisburg, even while many of those same individuals question why the performance of our state’s resource protection and management agencies is lacking.

The Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) funding today is lower than it was two decades ago. It has lost a quarter of its staff since 2003, and is facing a precipitous loss in federal support. The agency has been cut to beyond its ability to meet its core mission, never mind the multiple, billion dollar problems – like cleanup of the Susquehanna River and the state’s abandoned mine lands and abandoned oil and gas wells – that demand attention.

DEP has begun the long-overdue process of increasing program permit fees to help address shortfalls, but even the most optimistic of scenarios (given the state’s extensive regulatory approval process) place these new monies in 2019 or beyond. That means Pennsylvania remains far behind other states in performance of even the most fundamental of activities. For example, our state’s Safe Drinking Water program currently faces an inspection workload (available staff against number of inspected facilities) more than twice the national average, and has come under fire from the Environmental Protection Agency as woefully inadequate.

There is no question that agency accountability is of paramount importance; the regulated community deserves the same level of consistency and responsiveness in permitting that the public deserves in oversight and enforcement. Some of the problems in permitting go beyond simply a lack of money and must be addressed. As they should, DEP appears to be making the effort to reach out to the regulated community and elevate their own performance. But without sufficient support from the General Assembly and Governor, we face a continuation of problems that no one is happy with. And it’s the entirety of Pennsylvania – our environment, our economy, our communities – that suffer as a result.

Anyone looking for signs of commitment and support for environmental and conservation issues is sure to be disappointed. In April the state House of Representatives passed an FY 2017-18 budget – via House Bill 218 – that makes at least a 6 percent across-the-board cut to resource agencies. The legislation also includes a budget-wide $800 million revenue shortfall.

For DEP, the House budget cuts go across the board, affecting general operations (by 10 percent), environmental programs (by 6.5 percent), and environmental protection (by 5 percent). The House bill also cuts funding for county conservation districts and water quality initiatives.

For the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), which has also struggled with redirection or reductions in state funding over the past decade-and-a-half, the House budget cuts their support by $2.8 million. As noted in public testimony by DCNR, these cuts threaten reduction or even elimination of services across the Commonwealth, most notably in our state parks and forests. It could also lead to loss of agency support for public recreation projects across the state. These are all resources that provide extraordinary economic return to local businesses and communities, as well as the state’s bottom line. Recreation and tourism is one of Pennsylvania’s leading industries.

The House budget fails to provide any solutions to environmental permitting, agency performance, or public protection. It merely deepens long-standing shortfalls that have already adversely affected Pennsylvania’s citizens and businesses, and that leave our waters, state parks and forests, and communities further at risk.

Since passage of this proposed budget in April, the legislature has held numerous hearings bemoaning agency performance. The wrong questions, and the wrong solutions, appear to be the only things that have been put on the table headed into budget negotiations. There also appears to be the subtle positioning of certain legislative riders, which would weaken environmental protection laws, for last minute inclusion in the state fiscal code.

There are no easy answers, and the problems can’t be overcome in one month. But we again find ourselves racing into a few short weeks of budget turmoil, with no apparent satisfactory outcome or long-term solution. At a time that calls for open dialogue and responsibility, leadership in Harrisburg appears to be content with ignoring the problems, or quarreling about them in relative isolation.

Pennsylvania deserves better. Its citizens, communities, and industries all deserve better. It is time to make the commitment necessary to protect our environment, sustain our public lands and recreational infrastructure, and support our businesses and economy. It can be done.

The Governor and General Assembly must lead on the fundamental issues of our environment and economy. But first, they have to take ownership of those challenges. As of today, we have a long way to go to get there.