Fiscal Fiasco in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania General Assembly is being downright subversive. Not in the sense of resisting injustice or speaking truth to power, but by subverting the democratic process. 

Late last week, the Senate voted 48-2 to pass the latest version of the fiscal code, the bill that implements the state budget. The House could vote to pass the same bill this week. Legislators have packed the fiscal code with provisions that should be considered in stand-alone bills, thereby avoiding debate and public scrutiny. While the tactic isn’t new, it’s a blatant example of “backdoor” governance and an attempt to usurp the authority of government agencies. It may even be unconstitutional. 

To compromise with his legislative opponents and in the hopes of breaking a months-long budget impasse, Governor Tom Wolf abandoned his plan to establish a severance tax for the oil and gas industry. With a possible deal around the corner, legislators have responded by going for broke—loading the fiscal code with anti-environmental amendments that favor drillers and strike a blow against clean energy. 

Most egregious is the proposed prohibition on adopting new regulations for conventional oil and gas operations. As Earthworks and its partners have detailed, revisions—in the works for years and slated for adoption this spring—are needed for all types of drilling to better protect health, safety, and the environment. There’s also a chance that this tactic could derail the new regulations for unconventional drilling. 

Another rider to the fiscal code would prevent the Department of Environmental Protection from submitting the state’s plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants (i.e., the Clean Power Plan) to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Instead, the General Assembly would get it first, a tactic that could delay implementation for years. 

A third whopper is the removal of $12 million from a program of incentives to develop renewable energy. That same amount would instead be used to encourage businesses, local governments, and school districts to expand access to (i.e., reliance on) natural gas infrastructure. 

If the House passes the fiscal code bill, its next stop will be Governor Wolf’s desk. He could veto it, as he did during previous budget negotiations. When running for election, Governor Wolf promised greater accountability for the oil and gas industry and better protection of the environment. Beating back a fiscal code that favors corporations over residents would send a clear signal that he meant it.