Seeking to block a carbon tax, the House fell short of a veto-proof majority. How?

The Pennsylvania House (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

It’s a political trick as old as time in Harrisburg: Force Democrats into a tight spot by pitting environmentalists against labor.

The tactic was used this session, when the General Assembly passed a multi-million dollar tax credit to expand the use of natural gas in manufacturing. And it came up again Wednesday, when the House voted 130-71 to prevent Gov. Tom Wolf from entering an interstate compact that aims to cut carbon emissions from power plants.

Organized labor, particularly trade unions with employees who work in, build, and repair fossil fuel infrastructure, pushed hard for the bill. Their goal was a veto-proof two-thirds majority.

In bipartisan vote, House blocks Wolf from entering regional climate initiative; Senate vote awaits

Altogether, 26 Democrats broke with their party and voted to block the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative unless the General Assembly approves it, or any other carbon tax or regulation.

But Democratic  support for the bill, plus the defection of four Republicans, left RGGI’s opponents short of a veto-proof majority, unless some lawmakers changed their votes. 

Capitol observers cautioned that overrides are rare, as lawmakers rarely will break with their own party’s governor.

That Democratic  support comes in an election year, due to the strong influence of the state’s building trade unions, and as attacks on fossil fuels have figured heavily in the political discourse.

Democrats from across the commonwealth cast “yes” votes, from southwestern coal country to Northeast Philly.

Rep. Ed Neilson, D-Philadelphia, said he was a yes vote in the hopes “a reasonable compromise can be reached” with Wolf to preserve jobs.

A former electricians’ union official, Neilson added that he also thought newly elected House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, would be easier to negotiate with on environmental issues.

Former Speaker Mike Turzai was a staunch ally of natural gas, but Cutler’s demeanor and proximity to alternative energy — his district is across the Susquehanna River from the Peach Bottom nuclear plant — gives some environmental advocates hope. 

In a statement earlier this week, the nuclear advocacy coalition, Nuclear Powers PA, called the bill “a distraction,” and argued that joining RGGI “has great potential to properly value the carbon-free benefits of nuclear energy in Pennsylvania.”

Last year, Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Dauphin, was at the center of a failed push to help nuclear plants, by requiring all state electricity providers purchase nuclear power as part of the state’s renewable energy standard.

But despite the nuclear industry’s plea, Mehaffie was a “yes” in Wednesday’s vote. He bristled at the notion that he had voted against RGGI or climate action.

 

“Me personally? I feel I’ve done everything I possibly can not to set us back 20 years. Do I feel that the General Assembly failed to act? Yes, they did. And I think it was a huge mistake,” Mehaffie said.

Mehaffie said he hopes lawmakers will have a policy conversation to work on developing a statewide energy policy, RGGI or not. 

“We have to work as a one cohesive unit to make sure that that’s going to get done — Governor and legislature,” Mehaffie said. 

He added that he felt Cutler would understand the issues well.

A vote for jobs

It wasn’t just rank-and-file Democrats who broke with the party. House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, whose southwestern Pennsylvania district is home to a coal power plant and large manufacturers, voted to stop RGGI.

That vote was all about jobs, Dermody’s spokesman, Bill Patton said.

Dermody hopes to see more conversation  between industry, labor and the Wolf administration about “what joining RGGI will mean to all of us in the short term and the long term,” before the Legislature and Wolf develop a plan. 

Patton would not speculate on how Dermody would vote on a veto override.

Dermody’s “yes” vote came one day after his November opponent, Republican Carrie DelRosso, received a key union endorsement from Boilermakers Local 154

The western Pennsylvania trade union represents 2,000 workers who build and service industrial facilities, including coal plants.

In a letter announcing the endorsement, Local 154 business agent Shawn Steffee said DelRosso has “proved to be a true friend of labor.”

Steffee did not reply to a request for comment.

DelRosso told the Capital-Star that Dermody’s vote shows he’s worried about the race, and said his voting record did not support 

“This wasn’t just yesterday’s vote, this was historically, throughout times,” DelRosso said.

In a statement, DelRosso spokesperson Dennis Roddy also pointed to Dermody’s vote against the methane tax credit, HB 1100, last year.

Wolf vetoes multi-million methane tax credit, gas allies push for override

“Workers have recognized [DelRosso’s] support of continued energy sector jobs and the need to expand family-sustaining employment,” Roddy said.

But Katie Blume, political director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, said that it needn’t be a zero-sum game between jobs and the planet.

“I think voters are smart enough to realize that it is possible to fight for a healthy and clean environment while still encouraging family sustaining jobs,” Blume said.

A vote on Wolf?

The four Republican defections all represent rapidly changing suburban seats. Three were outside of Philadelphia, but a fourth “no” vote came from  Rep. Steve Mentzer, R-Lancaster.

Menzter did not reply to multiple requests for comment, but as a Republican who rarely bucks the party line, his defection raised eyebrows among Capitol insiders. 

They speculated his vote was a political calculation. His suburban Lancaster district, including Lititz, Warwick Township, and parts of Manheim Township, has not been a high profile Democratic target. But Wolf won the district in 2018, and Democrats also notched municipal upsets there in 2019.

Another of Republican facing tough political waters is Rep. Chris Quinn, R-Delaware, who has described himself as an environmentally-friendly Republican. 

First elected in 2016, he’s backed stricter pipeline regulations and renewable energy plans in office. He won reelection in 2018 by just a few hundred votes.

Before the vote, Quinn said he saw the merits of RGGI, but expressed frustration with Wolf’s unilateral entrance into RGGI, which made backing the move more difficult.

“Where we all might be able to come together and agree on something, because of Wolf’s actions … we’re all struggling right now,” Quinn said.

He added: “if we had Donald Trump driving issues through at the national level, the way Wolf is currently driving issues through the state, this would be a huge issue in the media.”

Quinn ended up voting against the bill, backing Wolf’s entrance into RGGI.

The Democratic defections were enough for progressive lawmakers, such as Rep. Sara Innamorato, to take notice.

Innamorato, a first-term Pittsburgh lawmaker, said she voted “no” to protect the Department of Environmental Protection’s ability to regulate and respond to carbon pollution.

Looking to the future, she said that Democrats “need to really be proactive” in talking about a transition for fossil fuel workers “and what that looks like.”

While coal plant workers have expressed concerns about job loss from RGGI, coal plants have been closing across the country and the commonwealth without cap-and-trade for years.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the volatility of natural gas and oil, Innamorato said.

It’s on progressives, Innamorato said, to “provide a counter-narrative, and bring people together in a really meaningful and intentional way.” 

“Because,” she added, “it’s obviously not happening.”

The bill now heads to the Senate, but faces a certain date with Wolf’s red veto pen.