Pennsylvania State Budget Turns Blind Eye to Environment
By Ezra P. Thrush, Director of Policy, PennFuture
Late last month, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a $33.97 billion spending plan that will serve as the financial roadmap for the next fiscal year. The General Assembly passed all accompanying bills and Governor Wolf signed the budget bills into law on June 28 before fleeing Harrisburg for the summer.
So how does this budget impact our environment?
This year’s budget was on time, but is it a good plan? Not quite. Especially in a year where there was a budget surplus, Governor Wolf and state lawmakers who approved this budget package should be ashamed for maneuvers that called for cutting funding from critical conservation funding such as the Environmental Stewardship Fund, among others.
Pennsylvania is facing many challenges related to the climate crisis, as well as woefully understaffed and underfunded agencies and a maintenance backlog of hundreds of millions of dollars for our state park and forest system. Despite that, this budget package basically says it’s in the best interest of Pennsylvania’s citizens to cut even more money from environmental protection and conservation.
A glaring example is found within the state Department of Environmental Protection, which continues to be staffed at 1994 levels and has seen its funding cut by 30 percent since 2002.
Recent reports show that Pennsylvania should be investing nearly $257 million per year on implementation of best management practices in the Chesapeake Bay watershed alone to meet clean water goals, not to mention millions of dollars more needed to solve our clean water problems in the Delaware and Ohio watersheds and the need to overhaul drinking water systems in our cities.
Pennsylvania farmers received about $6 million in this year’s budget for conservation, but that is just a start, and pales in comparison to the dire need of investment. For several years in a row, the river basin commissions in which Pennsylvania participates - like the Susquehanna and Delaware - are receiving well below their full-share funding.
With the enactment of this year’s budget, Pennsylvania’s resource agencies saw increases, but nowhere near the needed levels.
Take a closer look at the general fund allocations in the budget:
The Department of Agriculture saw a $1.5 million increase for the “Agricultural Excellence” Conservation program and a $3.5 million transfer from General Operations to the Nutrient Management Fund. Overall, the department saw a $19.49 million increase in funding over last year’s budget.
The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources saw an $874,000 decrease for state park operations, a $3.44 million decrease for state forest operations, a $2 million decrease for heritage and other parks, and a $1.6 million decrease for parks and forest infrastructure projects. Overall, the department saw a $19 million increase in funding compared to last year’s budget.
The Department of Environmental Protection saw a $3.67 million decrease in general government operations, a $2.51 million decrease in environmental program management, a $2.67 million decrease in the Chesapeake Bay Agricultural Abatement Program, and an $8.67 million decrease in environmental protection operations. Overall, the department saw a $2.6 million increase compared to last year’s budget
The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) is an agency charged with overseeing water quality and quantity of the Delaware River Basin, which over 13 million people rely on for clean drinking water and to support the region’s economy. Initially, Pennsylvania’s Governor put full fair share funding for the DRBC in his budget, the sum of $893,000 - yet the final fiscal year 2020 budget provides less than 25% of the Commonwealth’s agreed upon contribution to the DRBC. This is disservice to our water resources, considering that more than 43% of Pennsylvanians reside in the Basin, and that the Commonwealth comprises more than 50% of the Basin’s land area.
Despite drastic cuts to both the DEP and DCNR budgets, in earlier proposals, both agencies saw their general funds given increases due to fund transfers and new money found during last-minute budget negotiations, including an injection of $45 million to aid both DEP and DCNR operating budgets. While funding implications and final numbers for the agencies are not yet clear, this should be very positive.
What about code bills?
In addition to the appropriations bill and special fund shenanigans, the General Assembly often passes associated “code bills” that implement the budget across different areas. These code bills are often used to move nefarious pieces of legislation that, by themselves, wouldn’t make it through the legislature. Aside from a fairly “clean” Administrative Code Bill and a Tax Code Bill, which includes a $10 million per year increase for waste coal tax credits, this year’s Fiscal Code Bill has a number of troubling provisions. Take a look at a handful of issues below which caused us to raise alarm during the budget negotiations and to further oppose the Fiscal Code legislation in the final days of talks in Harrisburg:
Preemption of Plastics Bans: A provision directs the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee and the Independent Fiscal Office to evaluate the economic and environmental impact of any regulation impacting single-use plastics, reusable plastics, auxiliary containers, wrappings or polystyrene containers and to submit their reports to the General Assembly by July 1, 2020. Until the reports are submitted to the General Assembly, a local governmental body may not pass a law, regulation, or ordinance imposing a tax, fee, or other restrictions on single-use plastics, reusable plastics, auxiliary containers, wrappings or polystyrene containers. Slipped into the Fiscal Code by Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, this language was previously vetoed by Governor Wolf in 2017.
Changes to the PIPE Program: A part of Speaker Mike Turzai and House Republicans’ “EnergizePA” package of legislation (House Bill 1103), this provision provided for the Pipeline Investment Grant Program at the Commonwealth Financing Authority to be changed to allow funding of large residential conversion projects and combined heat and power applications, and the amount of funding applicants can receive was increased to $1.5 million from $1 million. This is yet another buildout of natural gas infrastructure.
Elimination of the Joint Legislative Air and Water Pollution Control and Conservation Committee: A provision calls for repealing the act which, in 1968, created the 51-year-old legislative body on July 1, 2021. The Joint Legislative Conservation Committee has long served as a bipartisan think tank on environmental and conservation policy for the Legislature.
Transfers of Environmental & Conservation Special Funds: The Fiscal Code called for raiding the Oil & Gas Lease Fund by $69.8 million to pay for general operations at DCNR, seizing $16.1 million from the Environmental Stewardship Fund (“Growing Greener”), and $10 million from the Recycling Fund to pay for general operations at DEP; a total of $95.9 million taken from special funds for environmental and conservation projects across the Commonwealth.
Looking to the Fall
State legislators have left Harrisburg for the summer, but the House plans to return on September 17th with the Senate joining them on September 23rd. While a hefty amount of bad bills were blocked or pushed back in the busy spring legislative session by PennFuture and our partners, we expect to see a very active fall.
During the week of budget negotiations, the House narrowly passed House Bill 1105, which would create a “Consolidated Permit” program at DEP and open the door for shortcuts to environmental standards in individual permitting programs. The Pennsylvania Senate also passed Senate Bill 619 by one vote, which amends the Clean Streams Law to severely narrow the definition of “pollution” and weakens spill-reporting requirements. We will need to continue our fight against these two dangerous bills.
In addition to these bad bills, we will also be fighting proposals to shortcut our permitting processes by sacrificing public health protections, increase fossil fuel subsidies through EnergizePA, weaken clean air and water protections, and rollback conventional oil and gas regulations.
While there will be plenty of bad bills to fight, we will also be working to pass some important new bills that will help fight climate change by advancing clean energy. We will work to expand and extend our Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards (AEPS) — increasing wind, solar, and other renewables — as well as giving more people access to clean energy by enabling community solar.
We will also support putting a cap on carbon pollution and implementing a carbon price, possibly by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and we will advance programs to aid in infrastructure and climate resiliency such as the Governor’s “Restore Pennsylvania” plan.