Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Analysis: Conservative Republicans Want To Freeze Funding For Local Parks, Trails, Farm Conservation, Mine Reclamation, Recycling

Conservative Republicans in the House Tuesday pushed an amendment to Senate Bill 327 (Argall-R- Schuylkill) that would have ended funding to help Pennsylvania’s economy recover from COVID-19 as well as support for heavily used parks and trails thousands of Pennsylvanians are using to escape the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The amendment would have frozen any contracts for expenditures from a series of environmental and other funds.  
The language said, “no department, commission, agency, office or authority of the Commonwealth nor the Administration shall enter into any contract which would require the expenditure of money.”
The funds included the--
-- County Conservation District Fund
-- Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) Fund
-- Keystone Recreation, Park & Conservation Fund
-- Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Fund
-- Recycling Fund
-- Solid Waste Resource Recovery Development Fund
-- Energy Development Fund
-- Environmental Education Fund
-- Highway Beautification Fund
-- Historical Preservation Fund
Other funds included: Judicial Reinvestment Fund, Ben Franklin Technology Development Authority Fund, Compulsive and Problem Gambling Treatment Fund, Minority Business Development Fund and the PA eHealth Partnership Fund.
This is a continuation of efforts started by Republican in 2017 when they passed a budget bill that cut $317 million out of environmental and energy funds that would have crippled community-based environmental protection and recreation projects.  Read more here.
Over 780 Employees Already Furloughed
In addition to efforts like this amendment, DEP and DCNR have already had 781 employees furloughed as a result of efforts to reduce state spending from the impacts of  COVID-19. Read more here.
$172 Million Just Sitting There
Of course, the Senate and House are still sitting on a $172 million surplus in their own operating accounts, but they don’t seem to want to repurpose the money to help real people recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.  Read more here.
Sacrifice is good… for other people in their view, apparently.
Click Here to read more about "legislative privilege" and hiding how the General Assembly spends taxpayer money.
Conservation Districts - Out Of Business
Effectively, this amendment would have put county conservation districts out of business at a time when their services are needed most to help farmers and landowners with projects that will help Pennsylvania’s economy recover.
Districts depend on state support from the Conservation District Fund to pay a significant portion of their operating costs to provide vital conservation services to farmers and landowners and to issue permits for new land development projects.
Stifles Economic Recovery
Study after study have shown parks, trails, outdoor recreation, forests, clean water, open space and other green infrastructure in Pennsylvania provides billions of dollars in economic benefits and supports tens of thousands of jobs in the Commonwealth.
And these benefits go directly to thousands of small businesses across the state that depend on outdoor recreation for their incomes, do the projects funded by the monies in these environmental funds and serve the communities they call home.
And there are hundreds of shovel-ready projects just waiting to go.
These green investments also provide significant health and wellness benefits, as tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians have rediscovered in recent weeks as they try to cope with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are just a few of the numbers--
-- Pennsylvania has a $29 billion outdoor recreation industry that supports 251,000 jobs, generates $1.9 billion in state and local tax revenue, $8.6 billion in wages and salaries. Read more here.
-- State Park visitors contribute $859 million a year to the local economies surrounding the parks.  Read more here.
-- One trail-- the Great Allegheny Passage-- generates over $40 million in direct spending by users and another $7.5 million in wages for communities along the trail. Read more here.
-- Every dollar invested in land conservation through the Keystone Fund returns $7 in natural goods and services to the state’s economy.  Read more here.
-- Local, community parks generate $40.3 million in expenditures from out-of-town visitors and $688 million in increased value for properties around the parks.  Read more here.
-- Pennsylvania would see a $6.2  billion economic benefit from cleaning up its rivers and streams in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Read more here.
-- Return on Environment Studies in counties all over the state have documented billions of dollars in economic benefits of clean water and protecting and enhancing natural resources. Read more here.
You can review dozens of studies and reports from a variety of sources giving you the numbers of jobs, economic value and more from natural systems by visiting the PA Land Trust Association’s Economic Benefits Of Conservation webpage.
PALTA has also pulled together the studies showing tremendous wellness benefits on its Health Benefits of Conservation webpage and on environmental benefits like reducing flooding and stormwater damage, better herd health and soil health for farmers and more on their Environmental Benefits of Conservation webpage.
What this all means is freezing these funds and potentially cutting or diverting them in the future would significantly stifle Pennsylvania’s recovery from the COVID-19 shutdown just at the time people and small businesses need an economic shot in the arm.
Make Or Break Year
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was going to be a make or break year for environmental funding after more than a decade of cuts and diversions of funding away from environmental protection, restoration, recreation and land conservation programs totalling over $2.93 billion.  Read more here.
DCNR’s State Parks and Forests are facing a $1 billion backlog of maintenance and safety projects that need funding.  [And what an economic boon for rural areas of Pennsylvania if funding was sent their way!] Read more here.
In FY 2010-11 alone, 16 years of General Fund support for state environmental programs was erased.  Read more here.
Since 2003, DEP has had more than 25 percent of its full-time positions eliminated because of regular and frequent budget cuts. Read more here.
3 Front War On The Environment
But, this is all part of the conservative strategy.
Conservative Republicans have been fighting a three front war on environmental programs and funding for the last decade--
-- Starving environmental agencies for funding so they have to cut staff and programs and then turn around and say they can’t do their job [they’ve successfully done that];
-- Adding even more layers of bureaucracy and procedures to block environmental regulations, reduce environmental standards and give regulated entities more control over these programs [they tried it again this week with House Bill 1874. Read more here.].; and
-- Using every chance they get to cut funding to support community-based projects to protect and restore the environment, improve recreation opportunities and land conservation efforts that real people-- voters-- overwhelmingly support [the Senate Bill 327 amendment this week was just the latest attempt].
So far the strategy is working.
These are the latest attempts, but they won’t be the last.
Watch for them again… and again…. and again on all three fronts.
(Written by David Hess, former Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.)
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[Posted: April 8, 2020]

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