Gov. Rendell and members of the Senate and House were lining up to fill the "hole" created in the budget this week when the federal government disapproved of the state's 2006 plan to toll I-80. The Governor called for a special session of the General Assembly to come up with a "Plan B."
Although proponents said the decision created a $472 million "shortfall" in highway and mass transit funding, the truth is the state has done without that funding since the tolling plan was adopted as part of the 2006 budget.
The other part of the plan adopted that same year-- higher tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike-- has in fact generated $450 million the state is spending on transportation improvements.
There is no deficit to fill. They just want the extra money.
The Governor said the extra funds could be generated by either-- imposing a gross profits tax on oil companies; leasing part of the existing Turnpike to a private operator (tried before but maybe better luck the second time); higher gasoline taxes; or using the state Capital Budget for road and bridge repairs.
With respect to funding vital environmental programs:
-- there is no plan to continue the most successful environmental restoration program ever adopted in the state-- Growing Greener;
-- there is significant opposition from many legislators to adopting a natural gas production severance tax to fund environmental programs while tolls and taxes are looked at as viable options for transportation funding
-- Pennsylvania just had the largest cuts to basic environmental protection programs ever made on top of cuts made in each of the last six years;
-- environmental agency staff furloughed for the first time since the Casey Administration on top of a 19 percent cut in DEP staff and positions over 7 years. DEP had an authorized complement of 3,200 positions in 2002 and now has 2,590 filled positions; and
-- $1.3 billion in environmental program funding has been cut or diverted to other programs over the last 8 years that could not find funding on their own.
Providing adequate environmental funding is critical to making sure permits for hundreds of millions of dollars in private sector projects get out the door in a timely way, it's needed to meet federal Clean Water Act mandates to cleanup our rivers and streams and to provide good local jobs and to provide a healthy environment which promotes tourism and agriculture, the state's two largest industries.
With a $1 billion deficit forecast for the current fiscal year and more cuts coming in funding and state workers, what will the priorities be for the Governor and legislators?