Monday, March 4, 2019

Senators Question Use Of Project Funds To Pay Agency Operating Costs, Sustainability Of DCNR Funding Choices

On March 4, Senators on the Appropriations Committee from both parties expressed concerns about the proposed transfer of monies used to fund local projects from the Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) and Keystone Recreation, Parks and Conservation funds to pay operating expenses for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and DEP.
Gov. Wolf proposed transferring a total of $95.7 million from special funds to be used for agency operating costs or not deposited in the special funds for their original intended purpose.
For the first time, Environmental Stewardship Fund monies would be used for DEP operating costs and other expenses taking $15.4 million away from the Fund and the income to the Fund would be further reduced by $19.3 million because money would not be transferred there from the Marcellus Legacy Fund.  DCNR projects are also financed through this Fund.
$30 million would be transferred out of the Keystone Fund and $69.6 million would be transferred out of the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to pay DCNR operating costs.
Wolf also proposed taking $10 million from the Recycling Fund to pay for DEP operations.
And it gets more complicated from there.  Click Here for a summary of all the transfers.
Some Senators said what the Governor’s budget tried to do was not transparent and hide increases in DCNR operating funds.
Others said they would oppose using project money from the funds to pay agency operating expenses.
Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh), Majority Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, again said he was worried about the sustainability of transferring monies from these and other funds to meet DCNR’s financial obligations going into the future.
He said there were so many accounting moves it was a “budgeteer’s dream.”  He said there is no certainty in how these moves are presented and if they are sustainable.
He noted DCNR’s is charged with preserving critical assess that the people of Pennsylvania covet.
Sen. Browne also raised the issue of how sustainable the current model was for funding environmental protection programs at last week’s hearing on DEP’s budget.
DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn said she is committed to funding projects at the same level as other years, even with the proposed transfers, adding the Keystone Fund, which relies on a portion of the Realty Transfer Fund, had healthier than usual revenues this past year to support the Fund and its obligations.
She also said each year’s budget will need to be reevaluated to make sure DCNR can meets its obligations.
Here’s a quick summary of some of the issues raised at the hearing--
--  More Drilling On State Lands: Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), Majority Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said there has been a lot of concern expressed about the transfer of funds from the Environmental Stewardship and Keystone funds, but at the same time he did not believe DCNR was doing enough to use its own assets to help fund the agency.  He said allowing more drilling on just 3 percent of DCNR’s land could generate about $100 million for the agency. Dunn said only a little more than 35 percent of the existing leases on State Forest land have been developed and in some areas there has been little activity. She said DCNR’s lands have recreation and other values the public uses that bring significant economic returns to the communities around them and briefly mentioned Gov. Wolf’s drilling moratorium.
In a follow-up, Sen. Yaw said he would rather see the land used to generate revenue DCNR could use like the Game Commission does with its no surface impact leases for drilling than to take money out of special funds used for dedicated purposes.
-- Restore Pennsylvania: Sen. John Yudichak (D-Luzerne), Minority Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, asked how the Restore Pennsylvania proposal could help with the infrastructure maintenance backlog at DCNR.  Dunn said the agency has about a $1 billion maintenance backlog in State Parks and Forests and Restore Pennsylvania could help bring them back to their “former glory.”  The funds could also be used for a variety of local recreational infrastructure projects, like filling gaps in local and regional trail systems. She again pointed to the economic return these kinds of projects yield for the communities in which they are located.
Sen. Judith Schwank (D-Berks), Minority Chair of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, said we don’t need another study to know how important the return on investments are from our State Parks and Forests and said the Restore Pennsylvania initiative would provide much-needed help to DCNR and communities.
-- Fund Transfers To Pay Operating Expenses: Here are just some of the comments made about the proposed transfers of monies used to support local projects from the Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) and Keystone funds to pay agency operating expenses--
  -- Sen. Tom Killion (R-Delaware) said he’s getting a lot of emails opposing the transfers saying he would rather see those funds go into projects and not pay operating expenses.
  -- Sen. Mario Scavello (R-Monroe) said he was also getting “tons” of emails expressing opposition to the transfers and was concerned about the impact of the transfers on funding projects.
  -- Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver), Majority Chair of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, also said he was getting a lot of constituents contacting his office opposing the transfers and expressed his concern.
  -- Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) said she was concerned about the confusion around the transfers and the lack of transparency.  She also noted when she was in the House and a similar proposal was made by Republicans, the Governor opposed it.  She said the Governor must have had a change of heart.
  -- Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia), Minority Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said for the record it was not unusual for Governors to propose fund transfers to balance a state budget.
-- Stormwater Pollution Reduction: Sen. Yudichak asked what DCNR can do to help communities meet their stormwater pollution reduction obligations.  Dunn said water quality was always a key part of what DCNR did, recalling the name of the initial forest agency was the Department of Forests and Waters which acquired land for its water quality benefits.  She said DCNR has taken the lead on forested riparian buffers to reduce agricultural and stormwater pollution in part to meet Pennsylvania’s obligations to reduce water pollution going to the Chesapeake Bay. DCNR is also looking at how local parks can be enhanced to reduce flooding and contribute to stormwater pollution reduction.  She again pointed to the need for the Restore Pennsylvania proposal to support these kinds of projects.
-- Climate Initiatives: Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) asked what DCNR is doing to mitigate against climate change and how the Restore Pennsylvania initiative would help.  Dunn said DCNR released a Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Plan in 2018 with 124 recommended actions DCNR should take.  Through the Governor’s Executive Order, DCNR is also working with other agencies on climate issue.  She said DCNR hopes to exceed the goals laid out in the Governor’s Order.   She added, it was not only important for DCNR to reduce its carbon footprint, but her agency has the opportunity to educate the over 40 million annual visitors to its facilities about climate issues and what they can do to help.
Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) followed up by asking for some specific examples of DCNR actions.  DCNR Deputy Secretary for Administration Michael Walsh said DCNR hopes to cut its energy use by 24 percent by 2025, replace 25 percent of its fleet with hybrid and electric vehicles by 2025, complete the installation of 15 solar arrays by the end of year, and get 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2022 saving $500,000 a year.  
-- Increasing ATV/Snowmobile Trails: Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) expressed a concern Pennsylvania is losing out to West Virginia in developing new destination ATV use areas.  Dunn pointed to Whiskey Springs ATV Riding Area as an example of the kind of project DCNR has supported.  She said there is a proposal to expand the area with a price tag of about $20 million they would need Restore Pennsylvania to fund.  DCNR Deputy Secretary for Conservation and Technical Services Lauren Imgrund also mentioned the Mines and Meadows ATV area in Lawrence County that wants to add land in Armstrong County.
Sen. Mario Scavella (R-Monroe) said constituents have told him they have taken their snowmobiles to Canada because they have thousands of miles of snowmobile trails there and asked about the status of snowmobile trails.  Dunn said DCNR has had a long partnership with the snowmobile owners and dealers on developing opportunities in Pennsylvania.  Sometimes, she said, what Pennsylvania doesn’t have is snow.  She again pointed to the need for the Restore Pennsylvania proposal and the funding it would bring to these kinds of projects.
-- Timber Sales Decline: Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver) expressed a concern about the decline in timber sales and wondered if the tariff fight with China has had an impact.  Dunn said China’s growing middle class has been a good market for hardwood-- cherry-- furniture. She added DCNR’s Green Ribbon Task Force has developed recommendations and is advising her agency on additional steps to take to expand the forest products industry. DCNR Deputy Secretary for Parks and Forestry John Norbeck added DCNR expects prices will be soft this year in part because of the tariff discussions around the world along with a reduced demand from China.  He said the invasive Emerald Ash Borer has also had some impact on the availability of ash trees.  Norbec said DCNR’s forest pest management staff is also working with the other agencies on the impact of the invasive Spotted Lanternfly on hardwoods.
-- Invasive Species:  Sen. Daniel Laughlin (R-Erie) asked if anyone has ever won a fight with an invasive insect species like the Spotted Lanternfly or “are we just wasting our money.”  Dunn said fighting invasive species has become a constant battle, but what is at stake is the damage they can do to our forests and our forest industries. Norbec said Pennsylvania has been fighting the gypsy moth battle since the 1970s and it hasn’t been won, but it is being managed.
-- Presque Isle State Park: Sen. Daniel Laughlin (R-Erie) said he is proud to have Presque Isle State Park in his district and asked how can we do more to improve park because it is a major economic contributor to the region.  He noted Gull Point at the end of the peninsula is ready to separate from the main peninsula. Dunn said Presque Isle is a globally important birding area and Pennsylvania’s most visited park with 4 million visitors a year.  But it’s also a poster child for the need for Restore Pennsylvania because of the many infrastructure projects that need to be done in the park.
Click Here to watch a video of the hearing. Click Here for DCNR’s written testimony.
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