Bay Journal

Despite challenges, PA environmental programs face cuts

  • By Donna Morelli on July 11, 2017
Water programs fared poorly in the state budget, environmental groups say. (Donna Morelli)

Pennsylvania has no new funding for the Chesapeake Bay, drinking water or the Susquehanna River in a 2017–18 budget that includes cuts to environmental and resource agencies. And some worry the situation may get worse as legislators still have no plan in place to fill a $1.1 billion shortfall in the nearly $32 billion spending plan.

Despite repeated warnings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to better fund Pennsylvania’s lagging Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts and the state’s clean drinking water program,  environmental programs overall had their funds cut, some by as much as 50 percent.

“We continue the same trend that we’ve had for the last 13 years: reducing environmental funding year after year and not meeting our environmental obligations,” said David E. Hess, a former secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection and now an environmental lobbyist. “It will continue the other trend; agencies will keep increasing permit fees to meet their costs. It’s an unavoidable consequence of the budget they adopted.”

Legislators worked last weekend and into Monday evening discussing ways to raise money to make up the $1.1 billion gap. While the state’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, has favored increasing some taxes, the Republican legislative leadership has no appetite for such increases or charging fees to industry, and has instead turned to floating a major expansion of gambling, increasing taxes on alcohol sales and borrowing against future tobacco settlement monies. By close of business Monday, the spending plan was enacted without the governor's signature, but lawmakers were still unable to settle their differences about how to raise new revenue to balance the budget.

One of the line items they did not consider cutting is the a 4.8 percent raise to the General Assembly’s budget, an increase of $1.48 million for a total budget of $325 million for 2017-2018 fiscal year, which includes a 7.5  percent raise for senators and  10.2 percent for House members.

Environmental advocates are on the watch now to see if ongoing negotiations will include tapping into dedicated environmental funds or slipping detrimental legislation into the final funding bills.

“It’s lopsided, it’s inequitable and the spending package they approved does a lot of harm to the environment,” said Ezra Thrush, PennFuture campaign manager for Water Advocacy. “They are going after clean water especially.”

The Department of Environmental Protection was decreased slightly from $148.4 million to $147.7 million and staffing was frozen at current levels.

The budget problems come as recent reports have highlighted a series of serious water problems facing the state. It has the most miles of impaired streams of any state, it is the farthest behind of any state in Bay cleanup action, and has one of the worst records of drinking water violations in the nation.

As a result, the EPA has warned in recent letters that it could take over managing some of the state’s water permitting programs, increase oversight and take other actions if it doesn’t improve performance. Pennsylvania was the only state in the Bay watershed to get a letter from the EPA warning that funding and staffing levels were insufficient to meet Bay cleanup obligations.

The DEP has also come under fire from the EPA for understaffing its drinking water programs. The EPA specifically told the DEP that the current number of safety inspectors employed is insufficient to guarantee the safety of public water supplies and, in a letter to the department, went so far as telling it to find immediate funds to expedite the process. 

“State budgets are the ultimate reflection of policy priorities,” said Matthew Stepp, director of policy at PennFuture. “For over a decade, Pennsylvania has prioritized cutting environmental protection for our public lands, clean water, and clean air. This budget simply continues this funding crisis and must be reversed to protect Pennsylvania’s citizens.” 

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources budget was cut slightly as well, from $106.9 million to $105.5 million. Complicating matters is that the DCNR general operations budget still includes a $61 million transfer from oil and gas royalties from drilling on public land, which may be considered unconstitutional by a recent court opinion.

A June 20 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling prevents the use of royalties from gas drilling on state forests for the general fund. The ruling says that the state constitution calls for revenue from natural resources to be only used for conservation purposes. The ruling left it up to a lower court to decide whether operations of DCNR constitutes conservation.
In addition, the General Assembly since 2009 has tapped almost $400 million in oil and gas revenue to balance the budget, an amount they may need to pay back to the fund if the court decides the transfers were unconstitutional.

Also hit by cuts were the interstate river basin commissions that coordinate efforts on the Susquehanna, Delaware and Potomac rivers. Each was sliced by 50 percent. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission cut, in particular, is a potentially severe blow to the Bay, as it plays a major role in water quality monitoring and other initiatives.

Some environmental programs emerged unscathed. The Conservation District Fund received $2.9 million from the DEP and the Department of Agriculture’s budgets to support operations for Conservation Districts across the state. And, the Department of Agriculture’s General Operations budget was increased by 5.9 percent.

The new state budget won’t alleviate any concerns of environmental advocates, or for that matter, for some legislators concerned with water quality. Several bills have been introduced to fund water quality benefits or to raise dedicated revenue for environmental improvement — but no action on any of these has taken place in light of the budget talks.

The Pennsylvania delegation of the interstate Chesapeake Bay Commission has called on the state to create new sources of revenue through a commercial and industrial water use fee, to restore local water quality as well as meet the state’s obligations to the Bay restoration effort. 

Cost estimates of what Pennsylvania would need to invest annually to get on track range from as low as $241 million in a 2013 Penn State study to $674 million in a University of Maryland report last year. The state is now spending about $140 million annually.

Sen. Richard Alloway R-Franklin County, one of five Pennsylvania lawmakers on the Bay Commission, is the latest to introduce legislation to improve water quality in late June.

“You would be hard-pressed on the Republican side to find anyone who cares more about water,” said Alloway’s chief of staff, Jeremy Shoemaker. “But math is difficult and the budget gap this year is pretty massive. Until we find a revenue stream to address these concerns, we have to make cuts. Some of our priorities are among them.”

About Donna Morelli
Donna Morelli is a staff writer for the Bay Journal based in Harrisburg. She's the former director of the Pennsylvania office of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by Donna Morelli

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