Sunday, December 28, 2014

How hard is Harrisburg working?

In today's editorial, the DN points out that Harrisburg legislators have barely bothered to show up for work this fall, and says that returning home to campaign is no excuse for not passing a gas extraction tax -- which, by the way, they had "promised" to have in place by October 1:

How hard is Harrisburg working?

In today's editorial, the DN points out that Harrisburg legislators have barely bothered to show up for work this fall, and says that returning home to campaign is no excuse for not passing a gas extraction tax -- which, by the way, they had "promised" to have in place by October 1:

Imagine telling your employer that from July to the end of the year, you're going to show up at the office only about 12 days, but that you expect your full pay and benefits to remain unchanged.

How long would it take for your boss to stop laughing?

Yet that's what many of our state lawmakers are telling us as they wind down a legislative session that, by the time they leave, was scheduled to have lasted 12 days for the House and nine for the Senate. The session has been shortened because - and if you aren't laughing yet, you will now - many are heading home to their districts . . . to campaign for re-election.

Yes, we know that lawmakers spend only part of their working life in legislative sessions, and they work in their districts as well. But with this shortened session, can we even still call them lawmakers? Especially given how many problems and issues are hanging in the balance - rising jobless numbers (now at 9.3 percent), rising poverty rates, declines in health coverage. That doesn't even take into account the real fiscal challenges the state faces.

Last week, the House members managed to pass a gas-extraction tax that should have been resolved long ago. They made a self-imposed Oct. 1 deadline, but the Senate has only three days left to debate, amend and/or vote on the tax, and hopes remain dim that they will. Senate Republicans have indicated they have little will to impose a tax, claiming that taxing the industry will make the drillers flee the state, taking their jobs with them.

This logic is laughable, since the Marcellus shale formation is a rich source of gas, and drilling has been active for two years. No one is walking away from this lucrative source.

Not only is the tax necessary to help with the state budget, but the community and environmental impact of drilling is mounting. Just last week, the Department of Environmental Protection ordered one driller to build a water pipeline costing $11 million that will deliver clean water to a handful of people whose water supply was adversely affected by the gas drilling.

That's just the latest cleanup required as the process that extracts natural gas from the earth continues to impact the state. Yet we're still the only state that allows tax-free drilling.

The resistance to a tax wouldn't be so appalling if it weren't clear that elected officials have imposed a different kind of tax on the industry in the form of campaign contributions. The gas industry has kept many campaigns liquid, with millions in campaign contributions.

The Senate is balking at the House's proposal, with some claiming the tax is the highest in the nation (not true, if you consider that Pennsylvania doesn't impose the kind of property tax on companies that other states do). There are conflicts over the amount of the revenue that should go to the state's budget and the portion for the communities.

(Another source of laughter: A recent proposal by City Councilman Curtis Jones to ban PGW from buying gas from the Marcellus shale drilling, to protest the environmental impact of drilling - regardless of whether or not this would force PGW ratepayers to pay more. That turns a convenient blind eye to the fact that the gas PGW currently buys is hardly innocent of imposing its own impact - it just isn't in our back yard.)

The fact is, our insatiable desire for the kind of energy that is both cheap and innocent of harm or impact might be laughable if it wasn't so delusional. That's why giving drillers a free ride by letting them off tax-free and forcing us all to pay the cost of mitigating the damage is such a terrible joke.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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