State Limps Across Budget Finish Line – The Environmental Bottom Line is That No One Wins

The Pennsylvania General Assembly has passed, and Governor Wolf has signed, a jumble of legislative measures that construct an operating budget for the Commonwealth. As in the past few years and in a way that has become the unsettling new normal, this budget package was expanded to include a number of bad environmental riders – additions to the budget bills that have nothing to do with the budget and “ride” along on a piece of legislation that must, eventually, pass.

Many of these provisions have no business being in budget legislation. To make matters worse, these riders represent new legislative language that had not been independently vetted or voted on. Instead, they were quietly inserted into the budget bills, forcing “all or nothing” votes with little notice or public opportunity to respond.

For a full rundown of the riders, please see this PA Environmental Digest summary.

Some of particular note:

  • Air Pollution Act Transfer: The budget legislation transfers $30.4 million from a settlement by the Attorney General relating to violations of the Air Pollution Control Act by Volkswagen. These funds were intended to be used for environmentally beneficial purposes, but are now being used to balance the state’s General Fund. While the General Fund supports an array of environmental programs and resource protection agencies, there was no meaningful increase in any of those programs this year. Furthermore, both DEP and DCNR are still held to long term reductions in funding that have severely impeded their ability to meet their core mission and responsibilities.
  • Manganese Standard: The administrative code legislation contained a provision that eliminates a requirement that has been in place for 28 years regarding water quality standards for manganese. That standard applied water quality protection criteria at the point of discharge of manganese into a river or stream. The rider in the budget bill has now changed that standard to apply only when, and where, water is withdrawn for drinking water. If there is no water supply downstream, the standard functionally ceases to exist. This revision also now places the burden of meeting the standard onto the entity withdrawing the water, instead of the company discharging manganese into the waterway. This is extraordinarily bad policy, done without any justification, that risks water quality and imposes cost burdens on the public instead of polluters.
  • Conventional Oil & Gas Wastewater Treatment: The administrative code bill also included a rider that artificially extends current operating permits for water treatment facilities providing waste water treatment and disposal for conventional oil and gas wells. While questionable on its own – again, no rationale was provided – this may also run counter to federal water quality regulations.

As bad as these riders are, it could have been even worse. In July, the Senate hurriedly amended budget legislation to include provisions that would have stripped DEP of its permitting authority, subjected air quality protections to a politically-appointed review committee, and fast-tracked permits for the oil and gas industry even if those applications were deficient. Thankfully, these riders were not included in what ultimately became the final budget legislation, but they had been tacitly agreed to by the Governor as a trade-off for enacting a severance tax on natural gas.

In addition, this year’s budget package includes a requirement that the Governor identify $300 million in special fund revenues to divert to the General Fund. Whether that will include taking money from environmental, conservation, and/or recreation programs remains to be seen.

It goes without saying that the use of a self-inflicted budget crisis to hide and enact bad environmental provisions – without rationale, without deliberation, and without public opportunity to comment – is flatly bad policy and practice. The fact that it has become routine and acquiesced to evidences a lack of genuine governance and representative responsibility. There is ample opportunity to have open and honest dialogue on these issues; the fact that elected leadership is actively evading that dialogue speaks volumes. Pennsylvania – its people, communities, and environment — deserve better than the current state of affairs.