Friday, July 7, 2017

PEDF Petitions Court To Declare 2017-18 General Fund Budget Bill Unconstitutional

The PA Environmental Defense Foundation filed motions on Wednesday and Thursday asking Commonwealth Court to declare the 2017-18 General Fund budget bill-- House Bill 218 (Saylor-R-York)-- unconstitutional because it transfers over $61 million from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to finance the general operations of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (page 366).
The issue is before Commonwealth Court because the PA Supreme Court remanded the case involving its June 20 decision on other transfers in past budgets to Commonwealth Court to sort out issues like this consistent with the upper court’s ruling.
The June 20 ruling by the PA Supreme Court declared 2009 and 2010 amendments to the Fiscal Code transferring $478 million from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to the General Fund unconstitutional because there was no evidence the General Assembly considered the use of the funds in its role as public trustee for natural resources under the Environmental Rights Amendment to the state constitution.
The new motion reads in part-- “If the Commonwealth can use our public natural resources for general operating expenses, including salaries and expenses, even assuming it is argued that the employees’ salaries and expenses are related to “conserving and maintaining” public natural resources, then no constitutional protection of the actual public natural resources will exist.
“The Commonwealth can and will argue that most, if not all, of DCNR employees are working toward conserving and maintaining our State Parks and Forests. The Department of Environmental Protection employees are also arguably working to conserve and maintain the public natural resources of our clean air and pure water.
“Other agencies also have obligations that could be viewed, under this interpretation, to be conserving and protecting our public natural resources, including both statewide and municipal entities.
“An interpretation of Article I, Section 27 that allows DCNR to decide to lease our State Forests for private industrial use to extract oil and gas to pay the general operational costs of DCNR and other State agencies results in the degradation, diminution and depletion of the corpus of the public trust and, therefore, fails to conserve and maintain the public natural resources for the benefit of the people, including future generations.
“The proceeds of the sale of trust assets must be directly related to conserving those resources. Article XVI of the Appropriations Act of 2017 makes an impermissible and unconstitutional general appropriation of trust assets for purposes that are not consistent with the trust purposes.”
The motions this week follow motions made last week asking Commonwealth Court to determine if $383 million in Shale gas upfront and lease payments transferred from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund remain in the public trust to be used only for conservation purposes.
Gov. Wolf has until July 10 at midnight to sign, veto or allow House Bill 218 to become law without his signature.
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