As legislators in Harrisburg continue to consider how to pay for the spending in Pennsylvania's fiscal year 2017-18 budget, there are concerns about both sides of the ledger.
The Commonwealth is significantly behind in meeting its Clean Water Blueprint commitments, yet the spending plan passed by the legislature continues a pattern of chronically underfunding pollution-reduction efforts in the Keystone State. This spending bill also did not include a plan to pay for it.
With 19,000 miles of polluted rivers and streams across Pennsylvania, it is vitally important that legislators adequately invest in measures that support clean water. The Commonwealth's efforts to meet its Clean Water Blueprint goals cannot afford to lag behind any further.
Taking another step toward a complete budget, in July the state Senate narrowly passed a payment plan: a $2.2 billion revenue package that also contains several important administrative measures. This revenue plan awaits review and action by the state House. But we have reservations about parts of it.
After careful study, there are two elements in the revenue package passed by the Senate that raise concern:
- The bill includes a severance tax on Pennsylvania's gas and oil industry to go into the General Fund in the amount of $108 million. As members of the Growing Greener Coalition, we strongly believe that if a severance tax is adopted, that a portion of the proceeds should be allocated for watershed restoration and other conservation efforts in the Commonwealth. But this revenue bill before the House does not earmark any proceeds from the tax for the environment.
- This legislation also requires the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to establish a third-party permitting process for environmental impact permits. This is designed to cut the backlog of permits currently under review, and speed-up the process going forward. This would allow applicants to get state environmental permits from non-state reviewers like certified engineers, surveyors, and other professionals. DEP would have final veto on the issuing of these permits. But this measure included in the revenue package before the state House does not provide details on how possible legal and technical issues like conflict-of-interest, ethics, public participation, appeal processes, and other elements would be addressed.
Although investments in this budget for conservation programs do not go above last year's levels, it is vitally important that legislators agree on a revenue package that at least pays for the approved spending plan.
Clean water is a legacy worth leaving future generations. Pennsylvanians have a right to clean water. Our health and economic livelihood depend on it. As the budget process continues, we will continue fighting for clean water and urging our legislators to do the same.