Wolf proposes staffing increases, fee hikes in DEP’s budget request

    State Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga, during a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee on Monday, 2/24/20 (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

    Fee hikes dominated budget talks Monday as the head of Pennsylvania’s environmental watchdog agency defended a modest budget hike that would bring more regulators onto the state payroll.

    But Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee told Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell that the proposed fee increases, for dumping in landfills and drilling for natural gas, are just a stealth tax hike. 

    “Even increasing fees, that’s passed on to the constituents I serve and we all serve across the commonwealth,” Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga, said. “So they all feel that as much as a tax.”

    In his sixth budget, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf asked for a $171.6 million appropriation for the agency that monitors air, soil and water quality and provides permits to polluters, a $3 million increase according to an analysis by House Democrats.

    The bump appears bigger because Wolf is reversing a plan to patch agency budgets. Last year, Wolf allocated just $135 million to DEP, before filling in a roughly $33 million gap with money earmarked for environmental projects such as green space preservation. 

    Environmental advocates worry over creative math in Wolf’s budget

    In response to bipartisan legislative and activist pressure, Wolf backed off the plan, and instead decided to take the money from five, unrelated funds. 

    That increase includes $2.5 million to hire 25 new staffers working on air quality and the Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

    Democrats were cheered to see the end of fund transfers, but some, like veteran green hawk Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, was ready to throw cold water. 

    “We’re down 900 positions since 2002. Though your 25 personnel increase is welcome, it has to be put into context,” Vitali, ranking Democrat on the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said.

    He added that even with new staff to implement a plan for the Chesapeake Bay, the state still needs $324 million to meet its clean up goals.

    The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is getting the same investment to hire 25 new state park and forest rangers.

    Even as DEP requested a funding hike, it’s moving forward with a plan to more than double permit fees for natural gas drillers. The permit will be among the highest among gas producing states. Rep. Matt Gabler, R-Clearfield, compared it to a “double dip.”

    McDonnell said using permit fees was “probably the worst way to do the funding for this program,” but was needed to cover existing staffing costs. 

    Wolf is also asking for a $1 increase in the state’s dumping fee, from $7.25 to $8.25 per ton, to replenish a state fund for cleaning up brown fields and hazardous waste. If approved, that would raise $22.6 million. 

    The fund used to receive money from a tax on every company’s book value instead of income. Wolf eliminated the tax in 2016.

    Now, the fund is “insufficient to sustain program activities at current levels, as well as the increased costs associated with PFAS and the current backlog of unassigned sites,” according to a 2019 report.

    The fund currently has $40 million in reserve. The agency has been spending down reserves since the tax elimination — typically about $50 million a year to clean up 95 totals sites.

    Speaking to McDonnell at the meetings close, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said that he preferred “not to put higher fees on individuals … until it’s really necessary.”

    Instead, Saylor pointed to using the state’s Recycling Fund, with $93 million in reserve, as a way to pay for hazardous waste remediation.

    That fund was one targeted by Wolf in his 2019-20 budget for transfers to cover the DEP budget. County waste authorities opposed the move.