Thursday, February 26, 2015

Analysis: 5 Things To Look For In Gov. Wolf’s Budget Address Next Week

When Gov. Tom Wolf presents his first budget to the General Assembly March 3, environmental advocates will be looking to see if he will at least make a downpayment on reversing the 12 year almost steady decline in state environmental funding which has so far claimed over $2.4 billion.
Given the $2.3 billion General Fund deficit, no one is expecting miracles, but will there be some steps in the right direction?
Here are five things to look for-- hope for-- in the Governor’s budget proposal--
1. Environmental Funding In The Severance Tax Proposal: On February 11, Gov. Wolf unveiled a natural gas severance tax proposal that would, he said, raise about $1 billion in FY 2016-17.  Unfortunately, there was no mention of any funding for environmental restoration programs and only a passing reference to some “smaller” portion going to DEP for regulating the oil and gas industry.
The Governor and Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley both acknowledged not all the details have been worked out in the proposal and many hope it will include environmental funding afterall.
One other “detail” to be worked out is what happens to funding for environmental programs now benefiting from Act 13 drilling impact fee revenue if that fee goes away.
Eliminating the Act 13 drilling impact fee altogether would put at least $76 million in funding for these environmental programs at risk--
-- $20.5 million to PennVEST, Commonwealth Financing Authority for water and sewer projects;
-- $16.4 million to Commonwealth Financing Authority for abandoned mine reclamation, watershed restoration, water quality monitoring, abandoned oil and gas well plugging, clean energy programs;
-- $12.3 million for Greenways, recreation trails, open space, natural areas preservation;
-- $8.2 million to the Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) Fund for watershed restoration and other environmental projects;
-- $7.5 million annually for county conservation districts, State Conservation Commission;
-- $6 million to DEP for enforcement of clean water and clean air statutes (although there was a brief mention of this possibility after the announcement);
-- $4.1 million to Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund; and
-- $1 million to the Fish and Boat Commission for review of drilling permit applications.
Filling in the details on the severance tax, in the right way, would be helpful.
2. Funding To Meet Pennsylvania’s Watershed Cleanup Commitments: Pennsylvania has 19,761 miles of streams polluted by abandoned mine drainage, agricultural and stormwater runoff and over 37,761 acres of lakes that do not meet water quality standards, according to DEP’s latest water quality assessment report.
As DEP’s Citizens Advisory Council noted recently, Pennsylvania also has a specific obligation, as a result of the federal Clean Water Act and court decisions, to clean up rivers and streams flowing into the Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna and Potomac river basins, about one-third of the state.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report last year found Pennsylvania missed its 2013 nitrogen reduction goal by 2 million pounds and sediment reduction milestone by nearly 116 million pounds.
DEP said by 2017, Pennsylvania must make an additional 10 million pound reduction in nitrogen and a nearly 212 million pound reduction in sediment to meet our mandated milestones.
Pennsylvania has just 669 days to put in place the best management practices that will meet these 2017 reduction requirements.
If we do not meet these milestones, the Chesapeake Bay Program requires the federal government to implement “backstop” control measures of their choosing that will dramatically affect local communities and businesses.
Pennsylvania also has a legacy of almost 220,000 acres of abandoned mines that pollute more than 5,000 miles of streams in 45 counties across the state.
Between 1995 and 2002, Pennsylvania reclaimed over 33,300 acres of abandoned mine lands, about 4,125 acres a year.  In 2013, DEP’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation completed 647.3 acres of reclamation projects.
As DEP’s Citizens Advisory Council also pointed out recently, in just seven years federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund monies coming to Pennsylvania to support mine reclamation work will end.  
In 2013 Pennsylvania received $58.5 million in federal AML Fund money, which makes up the bulk of the funding for reclaiming abandoned mines in the Commonwealth.
Beyond allocating significant funding from any new severance tax and making sure environmental programs funded by the Act 13 impact fee are made whole, the $43.8 million now taken out of the Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) Fund to pay debt service on the Growing Greener II bond issue that is long gone should be restored to the program.
3. Investing DCNR’s Oil And Gas Fund In Conservation, Not Operations: Gov. Rendell began the process of wholesale diversion of Oil and Gas Fund revenues to balance the state’s budget and to pay the personnel and administrative costs of the State Parks and State Forestry Programs in DCNR.  Gov. Corbett continued that practice.
One step in the right direction would be to propose a multi-year process of weaning DCNR’s personnel and administrative costs off Oil and Gas Fund revenues and earmark the revenues in that Fund for the conservation purposes for which they were originally intended.
4. Begin Restoring Staffing Levels At DEP, In Particular For Water Programs: Over the last 12 years, the Department of Environmental Protection has lost about 17 percent of its staff positions without a commensurate reduction in the numbers of laws and programs it administers.
The FY 2010-11 budget signed by Gov. Rendell reduced General Fund monies to DEP to less than FY 1994-95 levels erasing nearly 17 years of state funding.  In 2009, Gov. Rendell furloughed or eliminated 333 full time positions at DEP and DCNR because of budget cuts joining Gov. Robert Casey in being the only Governors to furlough staff from any state environmental agency.
While DEP did get a $12.4 million General Fund increase in FY 2014-15, the first significant increase in 12 years, agency funding is still way below where it had been a decade ago, again with no commensurate reduction in the programs it has to administer.  But DEP still lost staff positions.
The most significant cuts in staff have come in the water quality programs in the DEP regional offices as well as central office in Harrisburg because many of those positions are supported by General Fund monies not permit fee revenue.
A helpful step here would be a multi-year plan to restore staff positions to DEP and take an honest look at what the core functions of DEP are and eliminate those programs and activities not directly related to environmental protection, restoration and public and worker safety.
5. Keep The Keystone, Recycling, Storage Tank And Other Environmental Funds Whole: At various times over the last 12 years, Governors and/or the Senate and House have taken money from a variety of special environmental funds to balance the state budget.
In addition to the Oil and Gas Fund and the Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) Fund, money has been taken out of the Keystone Recreation, Parks and Conservation Fund, Act 101 Recycling Fund, the State Timber Fund, Alternative Energy Investment Act Program and “borrowed” from the Underground Storage Tank Insurance Fund.
A commitment to keep these funds whole would be another positive step.
Yes, the state’s budget is a jumble of competing interests, pet projects and new priorities, but no other set of state programs have been cut as long or as deeply over the last 12 years as environmental programs.
Pennsylvania can do better.  Perhaps redirecting the $60 million a year they spend to support movie productions like Zack and Miri Make A Porno would be a good start.
The environmental community is looking for a fresh start at reversing what has been a dismal trend over the last 12 years with Governors and the Senate and House of both political parties.
We hope Tuesday bares at least some fruit or at the very, very least doesn’t hurt the environment any more.

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