Mike Turzai just went to work for the gas industry. The revolving door keeps spinning | Wednesday Morning Coffee
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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Wednesday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link.
MLB.com 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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