Rep. Seth Grove questions DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell during the agency’s budget hearing Thursday (Capital-Star photo).
Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee made the heads of Pennsylvania’s chief environmental agencies defend a controversial funding shift Thursday.
In his 2019-20 budget, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed reducing general fund spending on the Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources by $62 million.
The shortfall would be covered by transfers from special funds set aside for specific projects, like building parks, aiding municipalities with recycling cost, and restoring green space. The transfers would continue for the next five years.
State environmental groups are crying foul, while lawmakers like Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, are worried the transfers could hurt outdoor tourism to their districts.
Pointing to advocates’ concerns, Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, told DCNR head Cindy Adams Dunn, “Frankly many of them and many of us have been fighting to protect these funds for a number of years” during budget battles.
Wolf’s plan matches in accounting, but not in scale, one proposed in 2017 by a group of General Assembly Republicans, who suggested pulling $1 billion from 47 funds. At the time, both Wolf and the DEP vehemently opposed special fund transfers to cover a surprise fiscal hole.
Wolf called the idea nonsense, while DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a release that “it doesn’t matter if it is $1 or $1 million — these funds are not a piggy bank. These funds have been strategically dedicated to projects that are making a difference for Pennsylvania communities.”
McDonnell said Thursday the funding shifts could be reevaluated down the line, but Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, questioned him about the seeming change of position.
“I’m not saying I’m against it. I’m just curious about the 180-degree reverse from your position two years ago to today,” Grove said. “What we heard two years ago were ‘all those funds are committed.'”
In response, McDonnell said that $26 million in debt would be transferred away from the funds under the plan. That means money that would be used to pay down debt could instead be used for projects.
Republican Appropriations Chair Stan Saylor, R-York, said Wolf’s plan shows the governor “sees some of the things we do. If you look at some of these funds, they continue to grow every year even though we continue to spend money out of them.”
Democrats gave both departments credit for keeping services up even with low budgets and staffing. But putting stop-gap funding on the table at the beginning of the budget process struck ranking Appropriations Democrat Rep. Matt Bradford, of Montgomery County, as “problematic.”
Here's new Democratic Environmental Ranking Member Greg Vitali speaking early and somewhat critically of the state of funding for conservation. pic.twitter.com/qy0ZX7LuY3
— Stephen Caruso (@StephenJ_Caruso) February 14, 2019
McDonnell — and the broader Wolf administration — have addressed concerns by focusing on Wolf’s Restore PA proposal, which would implement a severance tax on natural gas production to invest in state infrastructure. Projects would include flood prevention, fracking site preparation, public transit, and rural high-speed internet.
Under the plan, the state would borrow $4.5 billion over four years and pay off the debt with tax revenue in 20.
Dunn, of the conservation department, focused on the positives, saying Restore PA would fully fund, for example, the replacement of 32 state dams.
Throughout the hearings, many members, especially rural Republicans, pointed to last year’s rash of flooding as a priority going forward. Dunn responded that while a current “fund maintains these structures … something like dam replacement on the scale we need to do is a Restore PA investment.”
Saylor said the House GOP hasn’t completely dismissed the proposition, but that “the biggest problem with the plan is borrowing. We have to careful about committing money 30 years from now.”
Democrats weren’t entirely on board, either. Voicing concerns shared by state environmentalists, Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler of Philadelphia said she didn’t want significant funding linked to fracking in Pennsylvania.
“I’m troubled we’d pin the environmental health of this beautiful state of Pennsylvania on the continuance and growth of the fossil fuel industry,” Fiedler said Thursday.
Updated, 4:30 p.m.
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