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The State Budget Negotiations are Poison Pill for PAs Environment

Over the last 10 years, Pennsylvania’s state budget has consistently put the environment and public health at risk. 

Deep budget cuts and sneaky policy provisions have undermined the Commonwealth’s ability to keep drinking water safe, hold polluters accountable, and provide a clean and healthy environment for all. The FY2017-18 budget negotiations look to make this bad situation even worse.

While the media and general public focus on top-line items, such as education funding, total government spending, debts, and deficits, the budget determines how much or how little investment goes into environmental protection. The state budget process ultimately allows legislators to determine how many inspectors the state has to oversee your drinking water. 

This process determines how often the state inspects drilling operations and determines which permits are issued for conducting industrial operations safely. It determines whether or not grants are provided to communities to support recycling, how much funding is given to maintain our state parks, and also determines which funds are given to support park and forest facilities. 

The budget allows legislators to choose whether or not to invest in storm water buffers to keep pollution out of our streams, and in spraying to keep West Nile Virus and other insect borne diseases away from our families. 

The budget process has the potential to allow the state to carve out resources that direct investment toward cleaning up the Susquehanna River and reclaiming old coal piles. It could help to protect where we fish, swim, hike, ATV, recreate, and live.

The kicker: we depend on our elected officials to make good choices about the environment, and ultimately, it is up to them. The state budget process is one in which we could make great environmental strides by investing in public health. But it all depends on the priorities and the decisions made by Governors and legislators.

Over 10 Years of State Budget Cuts to Environmental Protection
Unfortunately, for the last 10 years, governors and legislators have cut investment in environmental protection, making it increasingly difficult to provide even the most fundamental oversight.

From FY02-03 through FY16-17, state investment in the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been cut by 53 percent, adjusting for inflation. There has been a corresponding increase in federal grants to DEP of 14 percent, but it’s nowhere near enough to make up for the cuts in state funds. 

During the same time period, state investment in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) has been cut by 24 percent, accounting for inflation. There has been a 65 percent increase in federal grants, but because the increase was starting from a very small base, the overall increase doesn’t cover the cuts in the state share.

Making matters worse, both DEP and DCNR’s budgets rely significantly on special spending accounts, separate from state appropriations, for between 30 to 70 percent of its overall budget. These funding accounts are where revenue from fees and fines are collected and directed by law to specific activities at the agency, such as oil and gas royalties from public lands, waste fees, and permitting fees. 

In FY2016-17, both DEP and DCNR’s overall budget relied on these funds for 42 percent of its revenue. Yet, the revenue provided from these funds has decreased by 26 percent at DEP and 18 percent at DCNR since FY 2002-03 because the legislature has diverted those funds to other programs, or the funds haven’t been updated in years and are accruing less and less dollars every year.

What does all of this mean? Pennsylvania has consistently cut state funding for protecting our air, water, and public lands, while failing to update our laws to keep agency funding accounts up-to-date. This has led to a dereliction of duty. Our state government isn’t provided the funding and tools to fulfill its mandate to protect our environment for present and future generations.

The FY2017-18 State Budget Aims to Make a Bad Situation Worse
Pennsylvania’s ability to protect the environment is nearing a moment of crisis, yet there is little urgency to address the problem through the state budget. In fact, the Governor proposed a state budget that continues the status quo, while the House of Representatives has passed House Bill 218, which makes environmental funding remarkably worse.

HB 218 is a disaster for DEP and DCNR. It proposes cutting DEP’s General Operations by 10 percent, its Environmental Programs by 6.5 percent, and its Environmental Protection programs by five percent. It cuts all river basin commissions by up to 50 percent and hacks 8 percent from the Chesapeake Bay program. These cuts put DEP’s ability to protect our water resources in a dire situation, while stressing its basic functions, like permit oversight, to a level never seen at the agency.

It also cuts DCNR’s budget by $2.8 million, which would result in rolling closures of state parks, a lack of maintenance at public facilities, and the elimination of key programs that support trails, road maintenance for hunters at state forests, and programs that battle forest fires.

In the coming weeks, PennFuture will keep a close eye on state budget negotiations and make sure that we keep you – our readers, members, and the general public – apprised of what the legislature is doing with your environmental protection agencies. 

Early indications aren’t good and the public needs to tell their elected officials cutting DEP and DCNR is unacceptable. Click here to find and contact your legislator today.

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