By - Joseph Otis Minott - Opinion
August 8, 2017
Pennsylvania legislators want to balance the state budget on the backs of public health and the environment.
The Senate recently passed a revenue package designed to balance the state budget and the bills now await action in the House. Hidden among them are drastic provisions that would greatly harm protection of public health and the environment.
Balancing the budget by sanctioning increased pollution and eliminating protections for public health and the environment is not only bad public policy, it’s immoral. Sneaking this kind of language into a revenue package behind closed doors, away from public view, and without public notice and input directly undermines democratic norms of transparency and shows lawmakers want to skirt accountability for their actions.
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The provisions appear to be illegal and unconstitutional, and they are unquestionably a direct assault on all Pennsylvania residents. They must be rejected.
Language in the Tax Code bill would effectively privatize environmental permitting, taking this responsibility out of the hands of our public servants and ceding it to unaccountable private interests. There are few details on how this travesty is supposed to work. There are no provisions for public participation, meaning there is no guarantee that third-party permit reviewers will hold public hearings or allow for public comment. There are no provisions to prevent obvious conflicts of interest and permit applicants would be allowed to handpick their own private permit reviewers among those contracted with DEP. This allows for rampant self-dealing - private permit approvers, after all, wouldn’t get much repeat business unless they quickly rubber stamp their clients’ applications.
Equally offensive is a provision in the same bill that would create a politically-appointed advisory committee that would replace the qualified professionals at DEP in deciding on air quality permits for the unconventional gas industry. It’s obviously intended to eviscerate the critically important methane emissions reduction strategy that Governor Wolf proposed over a year ago but has yet to implement.
The Fiscal Code bill also contains a provision transferring over $30 million to the state’s General Fund from the settlement the Commonwealth reached in litigation against Volkswagen for deceptive air pollution control equipment on some of its diesel vehicles, a practice that substantially harmed public health. Settlement money is earmarked for air quality improvement projects, not balancing the state’s budget. This provision may well violate the terms of that federal court settlement.
The Administrative Code bill contains provisions to weaken water quality regulations to benefit the coal industry. These provisions, too, may violate both Federal and State law.
It is the job of PA state representatives to protect the health and safety of all Pennsylvanians. The House should reject all of these provisions, and Governor Wolf must immediately announce his commitment to vetoing them if they reach his desk.