Pennsylvania’s proposed Growing Greener bond could help add a touch of green to the banks of the state’s rivers and streams while growing some of the key programs that curb nutrient pollution from the state.
The initiative, proposed in Gov. Ed Rendell’s budget earlier this year, calls for $800 million in bond-financed spending over four years to clean up rivers, protect farm and forest lands, and incorporate nutrient control technology at wastewater treatment plants.
Earlier this spring, state voters handily approved a statewide $250 million bond for water and sewer upgrades and polls show broad support for the Growing Greener initiative as well.
But whether they get to vote on it remains unclear. The General Assembly must act in June if the measure is to make it onto the November ballot. But the Senate in May stripped new levies on pollution and trash disposal by businesses in its budget measure, a key source of financing for the Growing Greener bonds.
Republicans, who control the chamber, said they do not support the financing mechanisms because it would hurt manufacturers. If Rendell finds another way to finance the borrowing, “we’re open to that conversation,” said Erik Arneson, chief of staff to Senate Leader David Brightbill.
Penny Lee, a spokeswoman for Rendell, countered that the governor’s overall budget plan carries more business tax cuts than tax hikes, but said the administration is also open to new ideas on how to finance the borrowing.
The Senate-passed bill still must be negotiated with a House-passed measure in a conference committee, and will be subject to negotiations with the governor’s staff.
If it makes to the November ballot and is approved, the Growing Greener program would provide $800 million over four years in three areas:
$330 million to protect open spaces, preserve farmland, restore and enhance state parks, and provide improvement funds for the state’s Fish and Boat and Game commissions.
$300 million for cleaning up abandoned mines, cleaning rivers, promoting clean energy, and cleaning up abandoned industrial sites known as brownfields.
$170 million for revitalizing communities, including redevelopment and improving community parks.
The funding would support many Bay Program priorities, including efforts to reduce nutrient pollution, plant streamside buffers, curb sprawl and protect open spaces.
Included in the package is $80 million to protect rivers, which would support an expansion of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which pays farmers to plant stream buffers and take other water protection actions and offers special assistance to wastewater treatment plants that want to install advanced nutrient control technology.
Among the clean energy initiatives is a program to help farmers install methane digesters that use excess manure, a major source of water pollution, to generate electricity. It would also offer financial rewards for alternate fuel programs that reduce demand for electricity from fossil-fuel burning power plants, whose nitrogen oxide emissions are a major source of Bay pollution.
The brownfield and community grants programs are intended to help revitalize existing communities and control sprawl development in the state—a recent report said Pennsylvania was losing an average of 350 acres of open space daily to development.
The program would earmark $100 million for Pennsylvania’s farmland preservation program, which has protected more farms than any other state in the nation. That is enough to protect an additional 43,000 acres, according to state figures.
It would also provide $100 million to protect other lands. Some of that would go to support the creation of a new effort, patterned after the farmland protection program, aimed at preserving privately owned “working forests” by purchasing development rights from willing sellers.
“Sometimes, the large tracts of working forests are sold off for development,” said Cindy Dunn, director of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Office of Education, Communications and Partnerships. “We think an easement program would allow a forest landowner who has a forest management plan to keep it as a large chunk of land.” As a rule4 of thumb, forests generate less nutrient pollution to the Bay than any other land use.
The money would also be used to permanently protect streamside forest buffers being planted throughout the watershed. Right now, most of the programs that fund the tree planting efforts only buy easements for limited periods of time, usually 15 years.
“We have all these tree plantings and all this work to conserve the buffers as the result of the Bay Program and other programs, yet they have no permanent protection,” Dunn said. “So we are going to launch a new program for that.”
Some of the money would also be used to support millions of dollars of upgrades at the state’s fish hatcheries, many of which are major sources of nitrogen discharges into Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams.
Under Rendell’s proposal, the bonds would be paid off by increasing the “tipping” fee charged to garbage haulers to dispose of municipal trash by $5 a ton. Half of the trash dumped in the state’s landfills come from outside its borders, so half of the $100 million the state would raise from the fee increase would be paid by out-of-staters.
A new $4 per ton fee on “residual waste” would be charged for manufacturing by-products such as sludge, demolition debris and coal ash. Such waste is now dumped without a fee. A 15-cent per pound fee would be charged for the release of toxic chemicals into the environment from more than 1,400 power pants, mines, paper mills, chemical companies and other industries.
If approved, it would substantially step up spending over the original growing Greener program, launched in 1999, which was authorized to spend $135 million a year. But it only hit that level once, in the 2000-01 fiscal year. In most years, it spent less than $100 million.
Funds in the new program would be specifically earmarked for Growing Greener, and would exceed $200 million a year when fully phased in in 2006.
Polls have shown broad bipartisan support for the proposal, but opponents have charged that its increased levies would hurt business.
“What we are going to do is tax current job providers to pay for these things,” said Matthew Brouillette, president of The Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Harrisburg. “Companies are already operating on thin margins. It’s basic economics. If people can’t pass on those costs, then they can’t keep people employed.”