Saturday, May 23, 2020

Senate, House Republicans Anticipate Action On FY 2020-21 Budget Next Week; Likely To Continue Cutting Environmental Funding

Judging from a meeting notice by the Senate Appropriations Committee, there will be action in both the House and the Senate on a General Fund and related budget bills the week of May 26.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has listed House Bill 2387 (Saylor-R-York), the General Fund appropriations, and 15 other House preferred appropriations bills for action at a meeting on May 26.  
Those bills are now in the House, so House action must be anticipated.
Rumor has it, Senate and House Republicans are going to pass a short-term budget using the numbers from FY 2019-20 budget numbers as a placeholder until the July revenue numbers come in.  The deadline for filing tax returns was delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some time after that, they are expected to get to work on the “real” budget.
The Senate Committee is scheduled to meet Off the Floor sometime on May 26.  The meeting will be available live online. No word on when the House Appropriations Committee will meet. The House Committee meeting should be available online.
No Environmental Priorities Addressed In 2019-20 Budget
It’s timely to remember the FY 2019-20 state budget addressed exactly NONE of the critical environmental funding issues facing the Commonwealth--
-- 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.]  
Updated Revenue Estimate
The Independent Fiscal Office will provide a revised revenue estimate for FY 2019-20 and its first real FY 2020-21 revenue estimate at a briefing on May 26.
On April 8, the IFO projected a $2.7 to $3.9 billion reduction in revenues for the current and next year as a result of the COVID-19 shutdowns.  Read more here.
Senate and House hearings in February, before the pandemic broke, found state programs had an $800 million deficit for the current fiscal year because of the usual under estimates of program costs.
Environmental Funding Cuts
Republicans have already passed legislation in the House 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 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.
$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 this again on April 21];
-- 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 have a meeting scheduled for May 27 to do it again]; 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 is the latest attempt].
Related Articles:
[Posted: May 23, 2020]  PA Environment Digest

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