Thursday, June 1, 2017

Budget Challenges Part II: PA Environmental Restoration, Park, Land Conservation Project Funding Cut 75 Percent

Funding for watershed restoration, mine reclamation, recreation, farmland and open space conservation, oil and gas well plugging project grants has been cut 75 percent since the mid-2000s from an average of $200 million a year to just $57 million last year, according to the PA Growing Greener Coalition.
This funding gets real results on the ground like hundreds of local parks and trail projects, conserved more than 80,000 acres of threatened open space, and restored hundreds of miles of streams and waterways, protected more than 78,000 acres of farmland, restored more than 1,600 acres of abandoned mine land, and helped reduce flooding and water pollution through 400 watershed protection projects and more than 100 drinking and wastewater treatment improvements.
Previous efforts to provide more funding to the Growing Greener Program-- like the $625 million Growing Greener II bond issue in 2005-- only succeeded in all but ending the program in 2010 after diverting revenue meant to be spent annually on projects to paying off the Growing Greener II bond issue debt for 25 years.  
Growing Greener I paid for Growing Greener II for no net gain in funding, but a permanent loss of project money for 25 years.
Another effort came in 2012 to fill some of the project funding gap at DCNR and DEP with the Act 13 drilling impact fee, but those revenues are now dropping like a rock.
The Independent Fiscal Office reported in January expected revenue from the Act 13 impact fees to be paid this year will be down 27 percent to $174.6 million from its high of $225.7 million in 2013.
To add insult to injury, a Commonwealth Court decision in March will further reduce Act 13 impact fee revenue by another 10 percent or $16 million annually, if the ruling stands.  The Court decision interpreted the definition of a stripper well in Act 13, which do not pay the fee.  Under the ruling, drilling companies can simply choose not to produce a well for one month out of the year and avoid paying the fee completely.
The Public Utility Commission is appealing the decision to the PA Supreme Court, saying the ruling “significantly jeopardized the current and future fees generated by Act 13.”
Rep. Pam Snyder (D-Fayette) has introduced House Bill 1283 to provide a fix for the stripper well definiton.  Gov. Wolf also said he supported a legislative change to fix the definition.
The trouble is, none of these methods of reversing this 10 percent reduction in the Act 13 impact fee revenue is quick or easy.
It’s ironic the primary source of environmental restoration project funding these days-- the Act 13 impact fee-- is currently down 37 percent from 13 years ago, just about matching the 40 percent cut in DEP General Fund support during the same time period.
Meanwhile, the General Assembly’s own budget has increased 21 percent in the last 14 years AND they had an $118 million surplus in FY 2015-16.
The PA Growing Greener Coalition is pushing an initiative that defines a need for $315 million annually for project funding to keep our water clean, preserve our open space and family farms, and ensure children and families continue to have access to parks, trails and other outdoor recreational opportunities, which are vital to our communities and quality of life here in Pennsylvania.
Senate Bill 795 (Killion-R-Delaware) introduced May 24 represents the group’s latest thinking on which kinds of projects should get funding, expanding the use of available Growing Greener Program funding to 20+ different initiatives.
Representatives Hal English (R-Allegheny) and Mike Carroll (D-Lackawanna), Minority Chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, are expected to introduce a House version of the bill shortly.
The weakness of these proposals is simple-- no new funding source has been identified. Without a funding source, if this legislation passes, spreading the dwindling funding to 20+ programs will significantly limit its effectiveness.
But, just having the bills introduced keeps this issue in the public eye.
In January, the bipartisan Pennsylvania members of the Chesapeake Bay Commission put a spotlight on the need to invest more state resources in the state’s water pollution cleanup programs by creating a state Clean Water Fund.
Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), Majority Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, Sen. Rich Alloway (R-Franklin), Rep. Garth Everett (R-Lycoming), Rep. Keith Gillespie (R-York) and Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster) wrote to all members of the House and Senate on the need for more funding.
They said, “Clean water is fundamental to public health and our economy. Unfortunately, almost one quarter of Pennsylvania’s streams and rivers are not safe for either drinking, swimming, fishing or aquatic life.”
One possible solution, they said, was creating a  Clean Water Fund financed by adopting a fee on water use.
In fact, Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster) introduced a water use fee bill-- House Bill 20-- on May 25 to fund clean water programs.
Other project grant funding is also at risk if the General Assembly does not act, including--
-- Reauthorizing the $2/ton recycling fee that is due to expire in 2020 which funds local recycling grants. The Senate now has Senate Bill 646 (Killion-R-Delaware) on its Calendar to eliminate the sunset date];
-- Funding the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Program that funds hazardous waste site cleanups and the state share of federal Superfund cleanups; and
-- Reauthorizing the Storage Tank Environmental Cleanup and Pollution Prevention Programs that funds storage tank removals to cleanup and prevent leaks. The Senate now has Senate Bill 649 (Yudichak-D-Luzerne) on its Calendar to fill a funding gap in the Storage Tank Program and authorize the cleanup and prevention programs.
I’ve learned one thing being around state environmental programs for 40 years, legislators and Governor’s can do anything they want to do in the budget, even in the leanest of budget years, with the right leadership.
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