Thursday, May 28, 2020

5 Month FY 2020-21 Budget Bills Now Law, Hard Decisions Deferred Until After Nov. 3 Election

On May 28, the Senate and House passed a General Fund budget bill-- House Bill 2387 (Saylor-R-York)-- and a Fiscal Code bill--  House Bill 1083 (Sankey-R- Clearfield)-- to fund state government through November that includes cuts of between 50 and 85 percent to line items.  
The Governor signed the bills into law May 29.
The strategy is to make the cuts so the House and Senate have to come back after the November 3 election-- a sine die session where defeated lawmakers still retain their seats-- to finish the budget for the remainder of the year and fill the now estimated $5.2 billion budget deficit for the current and new fiscal year.
Both the Senate and House have not held a sine die session since about 2007 because of a series of “reforms” made after the 2005 debacle that resulted in an initial pay raise for legislators and automatic pay raises year after year since then.
As a result of this strategy, all these funding issues will be reopened again in November and the risks of further cuts to environmental funding is very real, given the impact of COVID-19 on state revenues.
Given the $2.93 billion it cuts and diversions the General Assembly has already made to environmental programs over the last 17 years, logic dictates the Senate and House look elsewhere if they need to make up some money.  Read more here.
General Fund Budget Cuts
Some examples of General Fund cuts from FY 2019-20 levels include--
-- Dept. of Agriculture -- 21.3 percent
-- Dept. of Conservation & Natural Resources -- 45.9 percent  (41.6 % is a 5 month budget)
     -- Heritage and Other Parks - $1.025 million to $1.365 million increase
-- Dept. of Environmental Protection - 51 percent (41.6 % is a 5 month budget)
     -- Conservation District Fund - $2.5 million cut to $1.044
     -- Chesapeake Bay Pollution Abatement - 52.7 percent
     -- Delaware River Basin Commission - $217,000 cut to $90,000
     -- Susquehanna River Basin Commission - $205,000 cut to $86,000
     -- Chesapeake Bay Commission - $300,000 cut to $125,000
     -- West Nile Virus - 58.3 percent
     -- Black Fly Control - 58.3 percent
Fiscal Code Bill
The Fiscal Code bill-- House Bill 1083 (Sankey-R- Clearfield)-- that accompanies the FY 2020-21 budget which cuts Growing Greener funding by $6.2 million and continues the ban on single-use plastic bag bans nearly indefinitely in practical terms.
The provisions include--
-- No Marcellus Legacy Fund transfer to Environmental Stewardship Fund - $20 million;
-- Transfer of $13,782,000 to Environmental Stewardship Fund to pay GG2 debt service
-- $15 million transfer from the Marcellus Legacy Fund to the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund continuing minimal funding for the program.
-- Continues ban on local ordinances banning single-use plastic bags and containers until July 1, 2021 or until six months after Gov. Wolf's emergency order expires, whichever is longer. [Note: The opioid emergency has been in place since January 2018 and continues.]
Before the House voted on the bill, Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware), Minority Chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, attempted to remove the ban on local ordinance bans without success.
These transfers and issues in House Bill 1083 were all carried over from the FY 2019-20 budget, which didn’t address major environmental priorities either.  Read more here.
“PennFuture recognizes this stopgap budget is necessary because of the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are nonetheless pleased that the plan holds steady funding for environmental and conservation agencies that protect our natural resources,” said Ezra Thrush, PennFuture’s Director of Government Affairs. “Now is not the time to slash funding or otherwise undermine the work being done by these critical agencies, which work every day on behalf of the millions of Pennsylvanians who cherish clean air, pure water and a healthy environment. In addition, it's imperative that our state government makes real and meaningful investments on behalf of our environment as the legislative session moves forward this year.”
Additional Budget Background
It’s timely to remember the FY 2019-20 state budget addressed exactly NONE of these critical environmental funding issues facing the Commonwealth, and obviously the FY 2020-21 budget doesn’t either--
-- Water Pollution Cleanup: $324 million is needed annually for the next six years for Pennsylvania to meet its obligations to cleanup water pollution in the 43 counties that make up the Chesapeake Bay Watershed in the state.  Similar challenges face streams and rivers all across Pennsylvania with similar costs.
-- State Park/Forest Backlog: There is a $1 billion backlog in State Park and Forest safety and maintenance projects facing the Commonwealth on which nothing has been done.
-- Project Money Used For Paperclips: The FY 2019-20 budget authorized money to be taken from DCNR’s Oil and Gas Fund-- $76.774 million to fund State Park, Forests operations; $10 million from the Recycling Fund and $16 million from the Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) Fund to pay for DEP operating costs; $15 million was not transferred from the Marcellus Legacy Fund to support the ESF fund for local environmental projects.  [Note: The budget did authorize $45 million to be used to backfill these holes taken from other state special funds, but that just left everything the way it was.]   Read more here.
More Environmental Funding Cuts
Republicans have already passed legislation in the House in April to freeze funding for county conservation districts, local parks, farm conservation and watershed restoration projects. Read more here.
Republicans have also moved legislation in the House in May that would allow the General Assembly to annually reallocate funding from the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund that supports community-based projects.  Read more here.
In 2017, House Republicans passed a budget that transferred over $317 million out of environmental and energy special funds that are used to support community-based environmental protection projects in an effort to balance the state budget-- the largest cut in environmental funding in Pennsylvania history.  Read more here.
Over the last 17 years, the General Assembly and Governors have cut or diverted more than $2.93 billion in environmental funding to fill state budget holes from the last severe recession in 2008-09 and fund other programs that could not get funding on their own.  Read more here.
A big chunk of that $2.93 billion was nearly $1 billion taken from DCNR’s Oil and Gas Fund generated by shale gas drilling on State Forest lands to fill budget holes and pay for DCNR administrative costs.  
In 2017 the PA Supreme Court declared the early transfers to fill General Fund budget holes unconstitutional and a violation of the Commonwealth’s trustee responsibilities under the Environmental Rights Amendment to the state constitution.
But the Senate, House and Governors since then have regularly ignored that ruling and continued to do these same things. Read more here.
There is every reason to believe Republicans will use these same policies in an attempt to fill another state budget hole caused by the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
At $2.93 billion it cuts and diversions so far to environmental programs, logic dictates the Senate and House look elsewhere.  Environmental programs already gave $2.93 billion.  Read more here.
$172 Million Just Sitting There 
The Senate and House are still sitting on a $172 million surplus in their own operating accounts, but they don’t seem ready to repurpose the money to help taxpayers and real people during the COVID-19 pandemic or fill the gaping state budget deficit hole.  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.
3 Front War On The Environment
Conservative Pennsylvania 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 did it again this week];
-- 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’ve done this before too, several times and did it again on May 27]; 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 [they did this again on April 21].
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[Posted: May 28, 2020]

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