Gov. Tom Corbett's recently proposed budget would accelerate the disturbing practice of using funds dedicated to conservation for general government operations.
His fiscal year 2014-15 commonwealth budget would divert more than $227 million from Pennsylvania's Oil and Gas Lease Fund largely for non-conservation purposes, up from $135 million in the current budget.
The Oil and Gas Lease Fund was established in 1955 to provide money for conservation, recreation, dams, and flood control projects. Revenue for this fund comes from development of state lands – mostly rents and royalties from Marcellus Shale gas drilling in state forests. That development, in many cases, diminishes the value of the land. The fund was intended to serve as a counterbalance by providing money for projects that enhance the value of state lands.
Under Corbett's proposed budget, $75 million from this fund would go to the General Fund, $117 million would go to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for general government operations and the remaining $35 million would be used largely for other non-conservation purposes.
The $75 million diversion to the General Fund is particularly egregious because it gives no pretense of conservation purpose.
The $117 million diversion to DCNR expands the ill-considered policy of running the department with this fund. DCNR received $115 million from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund in this year's budget and $67 million in the budget before that.
Using this conservation fund to run DCNR creates a conflict of interest. DCNR's mission is to protect state lands, yet it is increasingly funded by the development of those same lands.
Diversion of any money from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund is inappropriate considering the enormous backlog of projects for which the fund was intended.
Former DCNR secretaries John Quigley and Richard J. Allan have both noted the $1 billion backlog of infrastructure projects in state parks and forests. These projects include the replacement of high hazard dams, the repair and maintenance of roads and bridges, and water and sewer projects.
Recently I introduced House Bill 1500 that would make clear that money from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund must be used for its originally intended purposes.
This legislation should be enacted without delay and any commonwealth budget which improperly diverts money from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund should be rejected.
STATE REP. GREG VITALI
Chair, House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee