Friday, March 25, 2016

Analysis: Final Budget Rolls Back PA Environmental Funding For 13th Year In A Row

While some are breathing a sigh of relief, the FY 2015-16 budget represents the 13th year in a row funding and staff for environmental programs has been cut, diverted or simply held in place, which really amounts to yet another cut.
As DEP Secretary John Quigley told the Scranton Times Thursday, “DEP isn’t lean-- it’s emaciated.”  He was also right when he said at his House budget hearing, the state “can’t cut its way to improving the environment.”
Since  FY 2002-2003, more than a 40 percent has been cut from General Fund support for the Department – going from $245.6 million in 2002-2003 to $142.6 million in 2015-2016. As a result, the Department has lost 22 percent of its staff. That’s more than 700 positions, including the current hiring freeze/cap by Gov. Wolf.
Although DEP continues to propose significant increases in regulatory program permit and inspection fees to make up some of these losses, permit charges still make up only about 50 percent of its budget.  Only 22 percent comes from the General Fund and the remainder from federal funds.
Meanwhile, DEP continues to administer over 40 state environmental protection and public health and safety laws assigning responsibilities to the agency.  None have ever been repealed, but many have been replaced with new and more significant requirements.
And Pennsylvania’s environmental cleanup obligations haven’t gone away, in particular programs related to water quality restoration.  There are no plans by anyone yet to bring in new resources to address them.
There is no funding in this year’s budget or even proposed for FY 2016-17 to meet the commitments Pennsylvania itself made to cleanup the Susquehanna and Potomac River Watersheds to comply with Chesapeake Bay milestones.
Pennsylvania agriculture, the number one source of nutrients and sediment polluting Chesapeake Bay and streams and rivers statewide, is being left out in the cold to fend for itself.
There will be $35 million less funding next year going to the Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) Fund to support reclaiming abandoned mines, Pennsylvania’s number two water quality problem.
As Secretary Quigley and Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh), Majority Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, agreed, 12 of DEP’s special funds, including the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund, the Storage Tank Fund, funds supporting the Air Quality and coal and noncoal mining programs and others, are due to run out of money or will not have enough to support their regulatory programs by 2018.
Federal agencies, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, have warned Pennsylvania that DEP’s federal programs administered by the agency are understaffed and becoming ineffective, including the Safe Drinking Water, surface mining, Air Quality, stormwater, Chesapeake Bay and others.
Over the last decade, DEP has been taking steps to become much more efficient to at least retain most of the effectiveness of its core environmental protection programs.  As Secretary Quigley has said,  “DEP got rid of all the extras a long time ago.”
It had no choice in the face of significant cuts in funding and staff.
Even with the steady decline in funding for 13 years, DEP staff still meet the Permit Decisions Guarantee Program permit review deadlines 89 percent of the time.  True, it isn’t the 95 percent the agency had been achieving in the past, but what private business can say that after a 22 percent cut in their resources and no changes in product?
The one proposal in Gov. Wolf’s FY 2016-17 budget that will begin to make a difference is a $2 million investment in new technology to replace DEP’s aging eFACTS permit management/public information system and to get new mobile technology for programs like Oil and Gas Management into the hands of inspectors.
Secretary Quigley said the boost in efficiency from using mobile technology (and the back-end systems that support them), means DEP could get along with fewer staff without sacrificing effectiveness.
There were suggestions during the Senate and House budget hearings this year, as in past years, that state agencies should be run more like businesses or use the concept of zero-based budgeting to construct their budgets from a plain piece of paper.
These comments reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the responsibilities public agencies like DEP and DCNR have.
In constructing its budget, is DEP to assume none of the 40 environmental laws it administers exist?  That it has no legally binding obligations to clean anything up?
Should the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources ignore their responsibility as custodian of 2.1 million acres of State Forest and 121 State Parks?
There is no argument that public agencies should be run as efficiently, in terms of operations, as they can be because they are also stewards of taxpayer money.  But even that costs money for things like technology which agencies like DEP haven’t gotten for a decade.
But, while the world can probably get along without the latest new and improved multi-function, grab-handled, rose-colored thing-a-ma-widget, we can’t get along without clean air, pure water and we can’t close down our responsibility as a trustee for Pennsylvania’s green infrastructure.
Being public officials means something.  It doesn’t JUST mean being a good steward of the public purse.  It ALSO  means making sure public agencies have the resources they need to do the jobs public officials themselves assign to them.
With respect to Pennsylvania’s environmental commitments and responsibilities, public officials can no longer do just half their jobs.
Related Stories:
DEP To Proposed Permit Fee Increases For At Least 6 Programs

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