Clean water advocates fighting state House GOP revenue proposal
As the state budget impasse courses on, clean water advocates are urging the Senate to vote against the latest House revenue proposal.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation emailed a "call to action" to its supporters Monday, Sept. 18, asking them to contact their state senator and urge him or her to vote against House Bill 453.
The no-new-taxes plan, narrowly passed in the House last week, relies in part on siphoning off approximately $630 million from off-budget programs, including accounts for environmental protection and mass transit.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation took particular offense with the proposed transfer of more than $317 million from programs including the County Conservation District Fund, Environmental Stewardship Fund and Environmental Education Fund, according to a letter sent to senators by Harry Campbell, executive director of the foundation's Pennsylvania office.
"These programs have significant return on their investments in the form of cleaner sources of drinking water, reduced flooding, increased farm productivity and increased fishing, hunting and other recreation," Campbell wrote.
The group of rank-and-file Republican House members that proposed these fund transfers have said these funds are all operating with a surplus and the transfers wouldn't have a significant impact on departments that use them.
"We vetted this plan for seven weeks," said Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-Dillsburg, one of the members involved in the proposal. "We're not debating the merits of these programs. We're just looking at their reserves. It's about accountability."
Andrew Heath, executive director of the Going Greener Coalition, said he has a hard time believing these funds have surpluses because many of the agencies that use them are facing funding shortages.
Heath suspects the money House members are proposing to take has already been committed to multi-year projects.
"If any (funds) do have excess balances, that money needs to be reinvested where it's supposed to go," he added.
Budget negotiations: As the clean water advocates' fight begins, the battle to complete a budget now more than 80 days overdue continues without a foreseeable end in sight.
The Senate’s Republican majority was divided over going along with the House’s GOP-penned plan, according to The Associated Press, as lawmakers grapple with how to resolve state government’s largest cash shortfall since the recession, now a projected $2.2 billion gap in a $32 billion budget.
After a two-hour closed-door meeting in the Capitol, Republican senators said they will seek changes to the House GOP’s plan, saying it would worsen the state’s long-term finances.
Rep. Keith Gillespie, R-Hellam Township, admitted he wasn't entirely comfortable with the part of the plan centered around selling off future income from the tobacco settlement fund, but he said the Legislature needs to finish this budget before it can move on to other needed legislation.
Gillespie, one of the representatives involved in the proposal to transfer funds from off-budget programs, said he hasn't taken a paycheck since the end of June, since the budget was due July 1.
Meanwhile, the general public is already starting to see some effects from the lengthy delay.
On Friday, Sept. 15, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration said it had to delay $1.7 billion in payments without enough in tax collections coming in to pay every bill on time. It is the first time the state has ever had to take such a step, state officials say.
Many Republicans have been critical of his payment delays.
Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, said she doesn't think the delays are necessary because revenue continues coming in.
Gillespie said he might agree with a spending freeze, but he wanted to know more specifics on where money was and wasn't going before formulating a final opinion.
Wolf said Tuesday, Sept. 19, that the Legislature has less than two weeks to end a budget stalemate before the state’s battered credit rating gets another downgrade and he must delay more payments for lack of cash, according to the AP.
Wolf added that he believes leaders of the House and Senate Republican majorities are on board with getting a deal done and signed by Oct. 1.
— Reach David Weissman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.