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House Speaker Cutler: Republicans Will First Raid Dedicated Funds To Balance Budget In November

On July 1, House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said Republicans will be first looking to raid dedicated funds and divert revenue streams going into those funds to balance the state’s budget in November.

He made the comments on the July 1 WITF Smart Talk Program [about 26 minutes in] when asked how Republicans would make up a $4 or $5 billion state budget deficit in November.

Speaker Cutler said, “Our goal is to more closely align our expenditures with the revenue that's coming in. And that obviously could mean cuts for retooling of some programs. It also should mean though I think using the surpluses that we already have available.

“There are special accounts and lapse funds that the governor has control of that number into the hundreds of millions of dollars. That should be the first place that we look.

At another point in the conversation, Speaker Cutler repeated, “But in terms of the other areas [to help balance the budget], there's some special funds that have surpluses and continuing revenue streams heading into them

“It has always been an annual discussion come budget time. Yeah, do you divert those revenue streams for a short period of time to meet other needs?  Do you look to other areas more closely, or more efficiently use the money we already have?

“The analogy that I would use is that's kind of, you know, that's taking your change jars and checking under the couch cushions in your home, before you ever ask the taxpayers to pay more.”

And a third time, Speaker Cutler said, “But I do think that between the federal dollars, and there's always the potential there for more, the extra money that's sitting in some of these accounts, they should all be looked at. And then, we need to have a serious discussion about how it gets spent and how it's prioritized, because I think we would all agree, and quite frankly the budget reflected some areas that you have to fully fund.”

In May, the Senate and House passed an FY 2020-21 budget covering the first five months of the new fiscal year and leaving the hard decisions on the budget until after the election in November when they cannot be held accountable for their decisions.  Read more here.

They’ve Done It Before

Since 2003, the General Assembly and Governors have taken $2.93 billion in environmental funding away from community-based environmental, recreation and restoration projects and environmental program funding to balance the state budget or for other purposes, even after many of the transfers from DCNR’s Oil and Gas Fund were declared unconstitutionalRead more here.

These cuts reduced DEP’s General Fund support by 40 percent and staff by nearly one-third and forced the agency to make up those funding losses with permit application fee increases just to meet minimum federal requirements for several environmental programs.

In 2017, Republicans passed a budget bill that cut $317 million (they originally wanted $450 million) out of environmental and energy dedicated funds that would have crippled community-based environmental protection and recreation projects.  Fortunately, that bad idea was beaten back.  Read more here.

Ever since, conservative Republicans have strongly advocated raiding dedicated funds claiming it was “extra” funding, which it’s not. Read more here.  But they succeeded in many cases.

The FY 2019-20 budget just ended included diversions from DCNR’s Oil and Gas Fund [unconstitutional], the Recycling Fund and Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) Fund to pay for administrative costs-- paperclips and people.  Some of that was returned in another part of the budget which required the Governor to steal money from yet other funds.  Read more here.

Since this was just a status quo budget that did not address any funding needs, it left DCNR’s state parks and forests more than $1 billion behind for safety and maintenance projects [Read more here] and DEP hundreds of millions of dollars behind in meeting mandated water pollution cleanup obligations [Read more here.]

Any way you cut it, FY 2020-21 was going to be a “make or break” year for environmental funding. Read more here.

In March, the Republican Chair of the House Appropriations Committee kicked off the discussion of solving the funding problem with DEP’s Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund by suggesting they take money from the Recycling Fund and put it in the Hazardous Sites Fund, continuing the Republican “solution” to budget problems by robbing Peter to pay Paul.  Read more here.

On April 7, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the state budget, DCNR laid off just over 700 wage employees and interns.  Later in the month DEP reported 72 of its employees and DCNR another 9 employees would no longer be paid after April 10.  Read more here.

These steps were in addition to a freeze on “non-essential” spending by all agencies.

In April, Republicans passed House Bill 1822 (M.Keller-R-Perry), by a party line vote, to freeze funding for county conservation districts and from a series of environmental and other funds to support local parks, trails, farm conservation, environmental restoration and other projects. Read more here.

Conservation districts said the bill would shut them down.  The PA Land Trust Association called the effort “insanity” because of its impact on local economies.  The PA Parks and Forests Foundation said the effort would hurt communities, small businesses and limit outdoor recreation opportunities at a time people are seeking more outdoor recreation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And 11 fishing and hunting groups also opposed the freeze saying it would hurt local farm conservation and environmental restoration efforts.

The bill is now in the Senate.  Read more here.

In May, Republicans on the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee reported out legislation-- House Bill 2004 (Ortitay-R-Allegheny)-- which would reallocate monies from the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund used to support local recreation and conservation projects statewide in a move that would damage the vitality of Pennsylvania’s outdoor economy, just at a time when the state’s economy is recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic..

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, representing 60 hunting, angling, conservation and outdoor industry groups, strongly opposed the bill saying it would disrupt a conservation program with a proven record of success.

The bill is on the House Calendar for action. Read more here.

See You In November

The five month FY 2020-21 budget passed in May also has transfers among dedicated funds, including DCNR’s Oil and Gas Fund [unconstitutional], cuts Growing Greener funding by $6.2 million and provides minimal funding for the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund, another significant funding problem area.  Read more here.

In other words, more of the same.

$172 Million

No word publicly yet on whether the Senate and House will use the $172 million surplus in their own operating accounts [it could be more now], to help fill the budget holes.  Read more here.

3 Front War On The Environment

This is all part of a three front war conservative Pennsylvania Republicans have been fighting against environmental programs and funding for the last decade--

-- Starving environmental agencies for funding so they have to cut staff and programs and then turn around and say they can’t do their job;

-- Adding even more layers of bureaucracy and procedures to block environmental regulations, reduce environmental standards and give regulated entities more control over these programs; and

-- Using every chance they get to cut funding to support community-based projects to protect and restore the environment, improve recreation opportunities and land conservation efforts that real people-- voters-- overwhelmingly support [the Senate Bill 327 is the latest attempt which Gov. Wolf vetoed].


Wallace McKelvey: How Safe Are PA’s Lakes And Streams For Fishing, Swimming And Drinking?

State Ends Fiscal Year With Revenues $3.2 Billion Below Estimates [PaCN]

Related Articles:

-- Analysis: 2020 Is A Make Or Break Year For Environmental Funding

-- DEP Budget Hearing: Republicans Propose Funding Hazardous Sites Cleanup By Taking Funds Away From Recycling; Oppose Wolf Climate Initiatives

-- Analysis: Why Republican Freeze On Funding For Local Parks, Trails, Farm Conservation, Mine Reclamation, Recycling Is Bad For The Economy, Communities, The Environment

-- Analysis: Why Everyone Else Says There Are No Unused Monies In Dedicated Environmental Fund

[Posted: July 2, 2020]


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