Two Pennsylvania state agencies dealing with the environment, parks, and conservation say they are outraged at a proposal by GOP-led state representatives that would take away hundreds of millions of dollars meant for much-needed projects to close the state budget gap.
Much of the money is already committed to toxic-site cleanups as well as rehabilitation and repair of state forests. Advocates say it would also impact grants dedicated to open space and local parks.
A group of rank-and-file House Republican members who floated “the Taxpayer’s Budget” last week say the environmental-fix money is needed to raise $2.4 billion to cover deficits from last year’s budget and the current spending plan.
“The Taxpayers’ Budget will not cost one job, compromise one service, or close one agency,” the House Republicans say of their proposal. “It does not call for a tax increase or need one dollar to be borrowed.”
Gov. Wolf has already called the plan “nonsense” and urged the House to approve a $2.2 billion bipartisan plan that passed the Senate in July. A $32 billion spending plan became law this summer, but has yet to be funded. Wolf faces the possibility of freezing some spending on Friday in order to prevent the state’s main bank account from going below zero.
The Departments of Environmental Protection and Conservation and Natural Resources say they are caught in the legislative jockeying.
The DEP says the Republican plan would take money from 41 special funds, including dollars earmarked for hazardous-site cleanup and environmental projects.
Last Friday, DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell fired off a letter to leadership of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, saying the GOP proposal “will create serious threats to the health and safety of Pennsylvanians and our environment.”
The DEP says that if passed, the plan “would postpone or cancel cleanup of toxic sites and projects in coal communities, halt mine land reclamation and a major manufacturing project, and possibly violate the Pennsylvania State Constitution.”
McDonnell cited the possibility of taking $100 million from an underground tank storage fund meant to pay for cleanups of 1,000 sites with cancer-causing chemicals.
He also said the scheme would hurt the Growing Greener program, which funds farmland preservation, open space, parks maintenance, abandoned-mine cleanups, and other efforts. It would also remove $17.5 million from an industrial-sites cleanup program.
McDonnell noted that the state Supreme Court has already declared taking money collected for environmental purposes and using it elsewhere to be unconstitutional.
“It doesn’t matter if it is $1 or $1 million – these funds are not a piggy bank. These funds have been strategically dedicated to projects that are making a difference for Pennsylvania communities,” said McDonnell.
David Hess, in his blog for PaEnvironmentDigest.com, tallied up what he calls a $450 million “raid” on state environmental funds that would amount to “the largest cut in environmental funding ever proposed in the state’s history.”
Cindy Adams Dunn, head of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, came out Tuesday against the plan, saying it would cut $145 million contractually committed to “hundreds of projects in communities across Pennsylvania. …”
In a statement, she said, “Claims that cuts to dedicated funds would not impact programs or jobs are inaccurate. Removing money from these special dedicated funds would mean postponing and canceling projects to help Pennsylvania communities and public lands, without the use of general operating dollars.”
In the Philadelphia region, projects would include repairs to the Delaware Canal system, including aqueducts and the Bridge to Odette’s in New Hope.
“This would ….[cause] quality of life and economic tourism losses,” she said.
The vote could come this week in the House.
State Rep. Dan Moul, who has been an outspoken supporter of the GOP budget proposal, could not be reached immediately Tuesday for comment.