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When Greg Vitali first saw Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal, he was aghast.
“When Wolf put out his budget in February, I thought, ‘What are you thinking? You’re a Democrat,’” Vitali, a Democratic state House member from Delaware County, told the Capital-Star. “Why are you suggesting fee transfers? Why don’t you try to get more staff in DEP?”
In office since 1993, Vitali has consistently advocated for environmental causes for his entire tenure. He has also witnessed deep cuts to the state Department of Environmental Protection under both Democrats and Republicans.
Twenty years ago, the DEP, which is responsible for regulating the quality of Pennsylvania’s land, air and water, had a $227 million budget.
The newly approved 2019-20 budget provides DEP with $132 million.
That trend — of environmental issues seemingly playing second fiddle to other state priorities — has continued in this budget, according to environmental advocates.
But while it is an old story, former DEP chief David Hess said that inflated expectations before the budget made this year’s letdown even worse.
An apparent bipartisan consensus that the state needs to do a better job on flood prevention and other environmental issues raised hopes among some advocates that spending would be taken seriously, Hess said.
Instead, the state’s biggest environmental investment was a $6 million appropriation for farmland preservation added into a $23 million package of legislation aimed at shoring up the agriculture industry.
Looking at lawmakers’ celebration of the so-called “PA Farm Bill” last week, Hess channeled Winston Churchill.
“Never have so many made so much about so little in this budget,” Hess said.
The lack of investment cited by environmentalists and conservationists was coupled by several provisions that also drew their ire, including:
- Preempting local governments from passing single-use plastic bans or taxes until the General Assembly completes a study by the end of 2020. Wolf previously vetoed a full ban, but said he thought the proposal within the budget was fair.
- A one-time $16 million transfer from the Environmental Stewardship Fund, which preserves farmland and manages stormwater, to cover general regulatory operating expenses. The Growing Greener Coalition, a conservation advocacy group, said that money could restore 51 miles of polluted streams or protect 5,330 acres of farmland.
- Setting up permanent transfers that total $26 million from two state funds, which subsidize recycling and remediate land after drilling, to cover administrative costs.
- Adding $10 million to an existing state tax credit for burning coal refuse.
Conservationists scored one small victory, though: A fund targeted in Wolf’s initial budget proposal was left untouched.
It’s vintage program known as the Keystone Fund, which preserves green spaces and funds parks and trails. Its balance is maintained by a 15 percent share of the state’s annual realty transfer tax revenue.
The ‘shell game’ continues
Rep. Chris Quinn, R-Delaware, said he was surprised in February by Wolf’s proposal to take $30 million out of the fund. He started lobbying his fellow Republicans to preserve the money this winter.
His efforts seemingly paid off. The proposed transfer was instead covered by dollars from the General Fund, according to a spokesperson for House GOP Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York.
Quinn may have been successful in sparing one fund, but the rest of the transfers, as laid out in Wolf’s initial budget, were implemented. The administration has contended the shift won’t impact projects.
The budget also uses General Fund cash to cover bonds payments that would have come out of special funds. These bonds, secured during the Rendell administration, paid for an earlier round of green investment
But the use of these reserved funds may not be over yet. Tucked into the state fiscal code is a measure that would let the governor transfer $45 million, without legislative approval, from other state special funds to cover administrative costs at the DEP or Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Hess, who noted the shift on his blog, said the authorization “just continues the shell game” lawmakers have been playing for the last decade with environmental funding.
Quinn said he had hoped to secure more funding for the DEP as part of the budget. But he pointed to spring hearings that made boosting funding for more hires a tough sell.
Despite point-blank questioning from Democrats and Republicans, DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said the agency had adequate resources for permitting and inspection.
“It’s really hard to make a compelling argument to anyone that [DEP] wouldn’t have enough money when the secretary of their own department said, ‘Yes, we have plenty of money and we’ll be fine,’” Quinn told the Capital-Star.
Wolf has also put much political capital into a push for his Restore PA proposal, which calls for $4.5 billion of investment into infrastructure spending. The plan would target stormwater management, disaster relief, and renewable energy, as well as rural broadband and gas utility pipes.
Restore PA would be funded via a severance tax on natural gas production, which would pay off an initial bond issue over the next 20 years. Republicans have derided the plan as heavy on debt, while some environmentalist lawmakers see it as a proposal that ties the state to the success of fossil fuels.
Regardless of the politics of a severance tax — a proposal House Republicans have repeatedly blunted since Wolf took office in 2015— Hess said Restore PA effectively catalogs the sheer scale of investment needed for environmental projects.
“How they fund it, that’s up to politicians to figure out,” he said.
‘We have a chance to fight this’
Progressive freshman lawmakers from across the state have been vocal about their unhappiness with the budget’s environmental provisions and Restore PA’s reliance on the natural gas industry.
That outspoken criticism has made Vitali feel less alone.
“When I saw this influx of new committed, bright, environmentally sensitive legislators coming in, from the southeast and even other spots, I thought, ‘This time we have a chance to fight this,’” Vitali said.
With an unsuccessful budget behind them, state environmental groups are looking ahead to 2020 — and taking names, according to Katie Blume, political director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, an environmental advocacy group based in Philadelphia.
“We are glad that this budget is better than initial proposals, but it still contains policies that will harm Pennsylvania’s natural resources,” Blume said in an email. “It’s clear who put these bad policies into the budget, and we look forward to holding them accountable next November.”
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