Mike Turzai just went to work for the gas industry. The revolving door keeps spinning | Wednesday Morning Coffee

June 17, 2020 7:20 am

Pa. House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny (“Friends of Mike Turzai” / WikiMedia Commons)

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

When now ex-House Speaker Mike Turzai announced his retirement back in January, he made it pretty clear that he wasn’t going to last out his current term.

And it was pretty much expected that the suburban Pittsburgh Republican would land in the warm embrace of the natural gas industry. After all, the industry has had no more stalwart a defender than Turzai.

So it wasn’t a surprise to learn Tuesday that Turzai had signed on as general counsel for W.Pa-based Peoples Gas. But there was something depressingly familiar about the sight of a high-powered politician leaving office to go on the payroll of an industry whose cause he was championing mere months ago.

Now I’m not going to go all Claude Rains in “Casablanca” and proclaim myself shocked, shocked to discover that there is a cozy relationship between those in power and the industries they regulate, nor is it particularly unusual to see a politician leave power, get a job in a related industry, and then be back in the Capitol within months lobbying his or her former colleagues.

It’s been happening since Seneca went to work for Nero. And it happens on both sides of the political ledger.

(Screen Capture)

“Harrisburg is a game of powerful interests and the effect it has on legislation,” veteran Franklin & Marshall College political analyst Terry Madonna told me on Tuesday. “It’s also true that lawmakers leave office for opportunities in industries whose cause they support.”

And over the six years of his speakership, Turzai embraced a wide array of issues. For instance, he lent his political capital to the causes of liquor privatization and school choice.

He was also a vocal opponent of abortion rights. So if he’d landed at, say, the Distilled Spirits Council, the Pro-Life Federation or as an advocate for charter schools, that, too, would not have been surprising. It would have fit the pattern. But it would have, somehow, been entirely less depressing in its familiarity.

A Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along PA Route 87, Lycoming County. (Nicholas A. Tonelli | Flickr Commons)

Because it’s hard to think of an industry that has so artfully evaded paying its fair share of taxes or left a more toxic and long-lasting footprint on the state’s political and actual landscape than the natural gas industry.

And it’s hard to envision someone who was a more aggressive advocate for its interests than Turzai, whose western Pennsylvania district sits squarely in shale country.

Consider the record:

In 2017, for instance, the Republican-controlled Senate passed a compromise revenue deal that actually included a shale tax. It sank without a trace in the House thanks to a combination of Republican hardheadedness and Democratic zealotry. And with it, most likely, went any chance of getting a shale tax over the goal line for the balance of the Wolf years. GOP resistance in the interim has only calcified in both chambers.

In 2018, Marcellus Drilling News, a publication that bills itself “helping people and businesses profit from northeast shale drilling,” credited Turzai for “[nuking] Wolf’s severance tax proposal.”

In 2019, Wolf trotted out a severance-tax funded infrastructure plan called RestorePa that someday, like Captain America, may be dug from the ice. Its chances of coming back to life, however, are measurably worse. At the time, Turzai said the plan would add $6.5 billion in new debt to the Commonwealth’s coffers. It has the added benefit of being hated by progressives for its over-reliance on fossil fuels.

Also last year, Turzai spearheaded his vision for a gas-backed economy in a plan that he’d christened “Energize PA.” Wolf ended up vetoing a natural gas industry tax credit bill that was part of the package. 

For voters, it’s another reason to get discouraged about the process — which means no one wins.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf delivers his sixth budget address to a joint session of the general assembly inside the House of Representatives chamber at the State Capitol in Harrisburg on Friday, December 13, 2019 (Photo from Commonwealth Media Services).

In poll after poll, voters routinely register their disgust with politics and politicians. And the intersections between industry and policy-makers like those outlined above often go a long way towards fueling that cynicism. And those same polls often register wide public support, by the way, for a severance tax.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that state law forbids former lawmakers from directly lobbying their former colleagues for a year after they leave office. Which, of course, doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to operate the levers and pulleys of influence.

And I can’t begrudge Turzai for wanting to make a living. He no doubt took the best offer that came his way. It’s something that most of us would do if handed an opportunity that we believed comported with our ideals and aspirations.

But the bottom line is that Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry, which, despite its economic benefits, has a dubious at best environmental record, also now has one of the most influential policymakers in recent memory in its employ.

Which means that efforts to tax it, or to subject to tougher environmental regulation, just got an order of magnitude harder. And for those among us who care about that kind of thing, it’s reason to sit up and take notice.

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Our Stuff.
Cassie Miller
 has the full story on former House Speaker Mike Turzai’s new job. Miller also has the details on Wolf administration changes to state contracting rules aimed at fostering diversity and inclusion.

Because it is a day that ends in “Y,” state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe has decided it’s a fine time to introduce impeachment articles. Right this way, Gov. Tom Wolfit’s your turn in the funhouse mirror universe that is Metcalfe Land.

Elizabeth Hardison has the details on a school safety grant program that’s been rebranded for the COVID-19 era. The $150 million program will pay for laptops, hand sanitizer and other needs.

News of a 3-day suspension for an Erie cop caught on video kicking an incapacitated protester lit up social media in the northwestern Pennsylvania city. The local DA is conducting his own investigation, Erie Correspondent Hannah McDonald reports.

U.S. House Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th Districtare calling for more federal aid to schoolsCapital-Star Washington Reporter Allison Stevens writes.

Philadelphia’s budget hole has grown to $749 million as officials race to finish a new spending plan, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

On our Commentary Page, Col. Charles D. Allen, of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., explains what it’s like to be Black, like him, in America in 2020.

(Photo via Flickr Commons)

Protesters in Philadelphia have called for defunding the city’s police department and using the money for housing and arts, the Inquirer reports.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photog Michael Santiago explains to Pittsburgh City Paper why he’s leaving the Post-Gazette.
In Harrisburg, they’re mourning the death of activist/advocate Lisa Burhannan, who has died from COVID-19, PennLive reports.
U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th Districthas proposed $120 billion in assistance to struggling restaurants, the Morning Call reports.

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:

A local police chief in northeastern Pennsylvanian whose inflammatory Facebook posts recommended that law enforcement “just start shooting” to quell protests, has been suspended, the Citizens-Voice reports.
The Reading Eagle talks to Rep. Barry Jozwiak, R-Berks, who’s signed onto the resolution to impeach Gov. Tom Wolf.
Joe Biden is set to visit Delaware County today (Wednesday), PoliticsPA reports.
NY Mag’s Intelligencer explains why conservatives and liberals are joining forces to fight police unions.
A U.S. House panel is gearing up for a ‘marathon’ mark-up session on a federal highway bill, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
The House and Senate are both out this week.
10 a.m, G50 Irvis: House Education Committee on plans to reopen schools this fall.
Time TBD: Daily Wolf/Levine briefing, perhaps. The administration has now said it will offer briefings on as-needed basis, breaking from its usual Monday/Wednesday/Friday rotation.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s a bit of new folk from singer/songwriter Jonas Friddle. It’s ‘Famous of Fire.’

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link. 
holds a roundtable on what it’s like being Black in baseball — and in America.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.