Corbett should budge on gas tax

One week after a blowout in April at a shale fracking operation caused a major environmental mess in Bradford County, Gov. Corbett advised state college presidents to drill for gas on their campuses. (AP Photos)

Republican leaders in Harrisburg have crafted a state budget with deep cuts in funding for education and other critical programs while letting natural-gas drillers off the hook for paying their fair share toward meeting Pennsylvania’s needs.

What a cynical debut for freshman Gov. Corbett’s fiscal stewardship.

The Senate was scheduled to return Sunday to prepare to implement a budget deal that came together late last week without input from Democratic lawmakers. So, there’s still time to chart a course that confronts fiscal reality while spreading the burden more fairly.

But if lawmakers instead join Corbett in passing a budget tailored to fit his untenable pledge of allegiance to Grover Norquist’s altar of no taxes, those decisions will play out in just the opposite way in local communities.

Corbett’s insistence on a 3 percent cut in the overall budget, and spending priorities that deliver deep education cuts, will mean teacher layoffs and property-tax hikes in many school districts. At state-supported universities, the likely result will be higher tuition.

Philadelphia’s school-funding crisis already has triggered a nearly 4 percent boost in the real estate levy, coming on top of repeated recent tax hikes that Mayor Nutter has to know hamper the city’s ability to thrive.

Pennsylvanians may find the whole notion of a no-tax pledge is just a case of smoke and mirrors. Rather than equip Corbett with the ability to guide the state, the pledge appears designed more to play to tea-party elements and shrill, antitax outsiders trying to impose policy on state capitals.

On the question of whether drillers should pay a fee or tax for the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation — as they do in every other drilling state — there’s no doubt the governor’s policy straitjacket could put the well-being of the state at risk.

First and foremost, local communities deserve aid from a drillers’ tax to help them contend with the increased traffic, road repairs, and other stresses driven by the rush  to dig for shale-derived gas.

Drillers also should be contributing more substantially to government efforts to ward off the potential environmental hazards — particularly to drinking water — from the process of hydraulic fracturing, which pumps a witches’ brew of chemicals deep into the earth.

Despite strong public support for the broad-based drillers’ tax that’s needed, Corbett has given no indication he would support anything other than a limited impact fee. Even for that, he wants to await a task force report.

It’s wrong to prolong a tax holiday for an industry that’s making millions — while local taxpayers keep picking up the tab.