What two rallies say about the fight over a natural gas tax credit | Analysis

Briann Moye, an organizer with the advocacy group One Pennsylvania, speaks during a rally in the Pennsylvania Capitol Rotunda on Monday, 3/8/2020 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

If you were looking for the Platonic archetype of the high-stakes push and pull of policy-making, then you didn’t need to look any further than the state Capitol rotunda on Monday morning.

For two hours, in dueling events, lawmakers, advocates and others on either side of a $22 million annual tax credit plan for the petrochemical industry, argued their cases — waving signs, shouting slogans, making dry asides, and when all else seemingly failed, making arguments that appealed to both the head and heart.

For supporters, the bill that cleared the House and Senate last month with veto-proof margins, is an act of economic salvation for northeastern Pennsylvania, which recently suffered the one-two punch of the Wolf administration’s decision to shutter both a state prison and a residential center for people with intellectual disabilities.

They say the legislation sponsored by Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne, will spark the same kind of building and economic development boom in anthracite coal country that a petrochemical plant that’s now under construction in Beaver County will bring to western Pennsylvania. It’s the leading bill in a pro-natural gas package Republicans have dubbed Energize PA.

“If Pennsylvania doesn’t create job opportunities from its own natural resources, then other states will,” Warren Faust, president of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Building and Construction Council, said during a news conference that united both legislative Republicans and trade union leaders.

Unlike the western Pennsylvania example, however, there is no plant under construction in the hills of northeastern Pennsylvania. However, two companies have expressed an interest, and the CEO of one has said the tax credit will play a make or break role in the decision. 

For opponents, who point to decades of fossil fuel boom and bust cycles that have scarred the land and gutted local economies, the bill is an environmental and public health disaster in the making that fails to heed the lessons of history.

“This bill pits potential jobs against the reality of human harm,” Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny, said during a rally against the bill that knitted together a coalition of environmental activists and community and faith leaders. “No job can be a good job if it requires us to mortgage our health and financial futures to create them.”

Then there’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has vowed to veto the legislation, and who, for the first time in his six years in office, faces the very real prospect of legislative allies in the House and Senate rallying behind an override vote.

That bar is admittedly high: It takes a two-thirds majority of both chambers to override a gubernatorial veto.

And Democrats who voted for the bill may well decide that, whatever its economic benefits, the political risk of crossing Wolf, their own leadership, and angry activists in a year in which all 203-members of the House and half the 50-member Senate face voters already energized by the race for the White House, may be entirely too high.

Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Luzerne, stood with House and Senate Republicans, as well as Sen. John Yudichak, I-Luzerne, on Monday to urge Wolf to sign the bill.

Speaking to the Capital-Star after the GOP event, Mullery said he believes enough of his colleagues will stay together to sustain an override because they don’t want to risk losing out on hundreds of high-paying union construction jobs — not to mention the permanent positions — that will be created thanks to a new petrochemical processing plant.

“I understand that this is a difficult ask for a lot of my colleagues,” Mullery said. “The message here is an easier sell. We’re talking about jobs and the economy. That takes a lot of the ideology out of it.”

And speaking during the GOP event, Mullery said he and the bill’s supporters are prepared to “work like we never have before,” to round up override votes.

For Innamorato, the debate around Kaufer’s bill is emblematic of a larger failure of imagination on broader issues of economic justice and natural resources development.

“We’re talking about fiscal responsibility, and yet we’re supporting something like this which has no caps,” she said of the credits. “We could literally do anything else [with this money].”

And for Democrats who might be wavering between sustaining Wolf’s veto or voting for an override, the choice is a simple one, she added.

“Do they believe in making smart investments,” Innamorato asked, “or are they for corporate welfare?”

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press