Republicans Using Fiscal Code to Undermine DEP’s Authority to Regulate Oil and Gas Drilling

Late Sunday night, Republicans adopted an amendment to the Fiscal Code that would halt DEP’s process for regulating oil and gas.

The amendment hadn’t been proposed or debated previously before randomly showing up on Sunday night, likely at the behest of fossil fuel lobbyists.

David Hess at PA Environment Daily explains that while the stated goal is to section off conventional oil and gas drilling from new regulations on unconventional drilling, which DEP has been retooling for years now, the language is so broad that it could potentially be used to run out the clock on the new unconventional drilling regulations.

The language in the amendment said the process used by DEP to propose the regulations was “invalid” with respect to conventional wells, but the language could be interpreted to also apply to unconventional (Marcellus Shale) wells since they both used the same process stopping that process as well.

The same tactic– amending the Fiscal Code– was used last year by conventional well drillers to direct DEP to adopt separate regulations for conventional and unconventional (Marcellus Shale) wells.

The Fiscal Code has been a convenient vehicle used by the Senate and House to adopt laws that do not go through any committees, not subjected to public hearings and are not voted on by either chamber.

In fact, the language and concept of killing regulations for conventional well drillers added to Senate Bill 655 didn’t even not appear in any Senate or House bill before it suddenly appeared Sunday night.

What’s behind this play? It’s actually much bigger than just the carve-out for conventional drillers.

As Marie Cusick explains over at StateImpact, throwing a bunch of sand in the gears to slow roll the rule-writing could have the much more serious consequence of forcing regulators to start the process over if dirty energy lobbyists succeed in running out the clock:

The DEP has spent four years revising its oil and gas regulations and held numerous public meetings. The draft rules, known as Chapter 78, must be finished by next March or the agency risks having to start the process all over again. Shortly after Governor Wolf took office, the DEP made a slew of significant changes– imposing more stringent rules for things like waste, noise, and streams. Both conventional and unconventional drillers havesharply criticized the agency for the updates.

As Dave Hess reminds us, the idea to carve out conventional drillers is nuts on its own, as PA has some of the weakest resource extraction regulations in the country to begin with.

But arguably the bigger danger here is this parliamentary “innovation” Republicans are using here. They’re doing an end-run around the actual public process that’s been established because they don’t like what the outcome is going to be.

Opposing environmental protection is unpopular, and they don’t want to have to defend that view publicly, so they’re turning to the Fiscal Code which doesn’t require any committee hearings or public meetings.

If this is allowed to become the precedent, DEP isn’t going to be able to do its job. If they get away with using a sham process to block regulations for conventional oil and gas drilling this time, you can be sure they’ll use it to block urgently-needed regulations for unconventional drilling and methane leakage next.

PennFuture has an online campaign going asking people to contact their lawmakers, so email your state lawmakers here.

Posted in Budget, Energy, Environment, Issues

Why Don’t Pipeline Builders Have to Pay Property Taxes?

In New Jersey, pipeline builders have to pay property taxes to the towns they build in, but not in Pennsylvania:

As Republican legislative leaders and the natural gas industry unite to beat back Gov. Tom Wolf’s severance tax proposal, here’s something lawmakers in Harrisburg are not talking about: Companies building new pipelines to grow markets for Pennsylvania’s natural gas don’t have to pay local property taxes on those lines to counties, towns and school districts.

So how much could local communities be missing out on? […]

StateImpact Pennsylvania found that if the state did collect property taxes on pipelines in the way New Jersey does, the 21 towns that sit over PennEast’s main routecould collect an estimated $4.3 million a year, based on the most recent information available.”

The issue is that PA doesn’t “consider pipelines to be permanent property like a factory building. Rather, the state treats pipelines like the equipment and machinery inside the factory — those are not taxed,” reports Katie Colaneri at StateImpact Pennsylvania.

The state tax code is riddled with all kinds of subsidies for fossil fuel like this, adding up to around $3.2 billion in lost revenue every year.

If lawmakers think we should spend $3.2 billion a year writing checks to fossil fuel companies out of the state Treasury, they’re free to make that case to the voters. This is the exact same thing, but it’s not debated every year because the spending is hidden in the tax code.

Posted in Budget, Energy, Environment, Issues

Why a Severance Tax on Natural Gas is Good for the Shale Industry

Chris Briem made a great point about this back in 2014, and I wanted to pull that out again because Mike Turzai is out there saying some pretty unbelievable stuff about the impact of a natural gas severance tax on Pennsylvania’s economy.

Looking at the big picture, relentless drilling activity is destabilizing to this market. It would be good if production moderated a bit:

The industry fought hard for as nearly unconstrained development of shale gas as possible across Pennsylvania. But who was hurt by that rapid drilling activity? Ironically I suggest it was the industry itself that was hurt most by the unabated rush to drill. Not too many years ago natural gas prices spiked during periods of peak demand. Both in 2005 and 2008 prices were several times what they are now, even with the the deep and extended cold. No reason not to expect similar if not worse peaks in the future and indeed the production of shale gas has kept prices low. Especially the deeper cold of the season would have made for a painful season for most consumers. If the industry had proceeded at a more deliberative pace, they might have recouped some of the profits they left on the table. The low royalty payments in the news are coincident to some very low profit margins as well.

On the even days, Republican politicians will tell you that the natural gas industry is the mightiest sector in the state, responsible for all the job growth, and on the odd days, it’s a fragile little flower that will go poof the moment we get a severance tax like they have in every other major gas-producing state. It can’t be both.

Posted in Budget, Energy, Environment, Issues

Mark Squilla’s Unsatisfactory Answer to Why He Attended “White Women’s Lives Matter” Rally

(Councilman Squilla calming things down)

The trouble with Philly Councilman Mark Squilla’s response to why he attended the racially-charged protest in Whitman (a neighborhood in South Philadelphia with a pretty recent history of racist reaction politics) is that when politicians go to rallies, that just emboldens the organizers and helps carry their message. It doesn’t calm them down.

From Newsworks:

Upset residents held a rally. It was reported that at least one person there was chanting “white lives matter” into a megaphone at the event.

Squilla said he was called by the police captain with whom the crowd was so angry.

“I received a call asking me to go down there, that the people were getting restless and blaming the captain for the lack of service,” he said. “I went down there to calm the residents down let them know what happened.”

Squilla still maintains he had the correct instinct here, saying he would “absolutely” go again, but that’s wrong. Attending the rally didn’t calm anything down, because that’s not how rallies work.

People try to get elected officials to go to their rallies because that draws attention to their causes, validate their message, and earns positive media coverage like the glowing WPVI portrait of this rally. Nobody would have covered this thing if Squilla hadn’t gone to the rally.

If you wanted to calm this group down, you’d let them blow off steam here without calling a bunch of broader citywide attention to it, put out a statement, convene a meeting with the relevant neighbors and the police department, sort out the details of the investigation on the police side, and report back the conclusion to the neighbors concerned about it. Instead he ended up whipping things up, and boosting the signal on this group’s inciting “racist attack” interpretation of the event, which is really reckless because we don’t even know yet whether the “attack” wasn’t just a mutual conflict:

But according to a tipster in South Philadelphia, there are rumors that the real story is quite different—that a small, mutual conflict was “exaggerated for the news coverage” so that it would appear that black people were “terrorizing” the neighborhood’s white residents.

By the way, don’t miss Max Marin’s excellent article about the recent history of racial politics in Whitman, and the great lengths white residents have gone to (gaming the Department of Licenses & Inspections and police department in “Cease-gate,” threatening violence) in order to keep black people from moving into the neighborhood. The claim that the area doesn’t have a racism problem just isn’t credible on its face.

Posted in Civil Rights, Issues

#PASen: RMU Poll Shows Toomey is Vulnerable

This is more like it:

A recent Robert Morris University poll shows Sestak with an advantage over incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey in next year’s election.

The former congressman was supported by 34.2 percent of respondents, while Toomey took 28.5 percent of the support.

There is plenty of room and time for these numbers to change, with 37.3 percent of those polled undecided 18 months out from the election.

In statewide contests, Pennsylvania is now essentially a blue state, and that’s especially going to be true in a Presidential year where lots of people who only vote every four years come out of the woodwork. A national campaign is going to remind those mostly Democratic voters why they don’t like Republicans, and despite the media’s weird need to sanitize him, Pat Toomey has a reliable record as a movement conservative that the Democratic Senate candidate is going to be able to deploy against him effectively in a high turnout year. The fact that his solid support is only at 28.5%, with a +/- 4.5% MOE, doesn’t bode well for him.

What this also shows is that even though the national Democrats would love to find somebody–anybody!–to run against Toomey who isn’t Joe Sestak, there’s really no evidence that Sestak is particularly weak against Toomey, or that all this casting about for an alternative candidate is justified by the polling. What’s driving this is that the national party lined up behind Arlen Specter in 2010 after The Switch, Sestak beat them, and they’re still salty about it. It’s an ego thing.

(via Politics PA)

Posted in Elections, US Senate

Philly Councilman Attends “White Women’s Lives Matter” Rally

I see some people saying Mark Squilla couldn’t have known ahead of time he would be lending his official support to what Gawker called a “white lives matter” rally, organized in response to an incident where a white woman was attacked by a group of black women in her home.

I don’t know enough to know whether the complaint about the insufficient police response is legitimate, but I do know about Googling people, and it seems clear Squilla should’ve known better than to throw his lot in with this crew.

The debate over whether politicians can be held accountable for their supporters’ signs always crops up in these cases, and of course you can’t hold an elected official responsible for every last sign at an event, but that argument falls apart in this case, because it all comes down to who the event was organized by, and the historical context of race relations in Whitman.

The “Taking Our South Philadelphia Streets Back” Facebook page condones a lot of thinly-veiled–and often not-veiled–racism, and Jack Owens is a known racist. I’m not going to post them on here because they’re really disgusting, but check out the Gawker page of screenshots of stuff Owens has shared with his friends on his (now archived) Facebook page. N-words galore!

So if you’re the Councilman, and Jack Owens calls you up inviting you to his rally, you say no. Because he’s a racist. And because you know that the people he’s going to invite to the event aren’t going to be the type of people who think this was just a really awful crime by some individuals, but rather believe that this incident is proof the whole neighborhood is under attack by all black people.

There are plenty of ways the Councilman could have communicated his responsiveness to the community concerns about an incomplete police response, like a press statement or attending a community forum about it.

The trouble is that Whitman is where Squilla’s bread is buttered. This is his voting base. He was the president of the civic association there before he was elected Councilman in 2011.

Whitman is an area with a track record of some serious racial ugliness. The neighborhood was the scene of some really insane desegregation battles back during the Rizzo administration, with white residents threatening bombings and bloodshed to stop construction of some PHA townhouses, because they would have brought non-white residents to the neighborhood.

While in the Porter Street house, Bantner was called to the telephone to speak to Fred Druding, the Whitman Council President, who told him that there would be bloodshed if Bantner’s company built the development. He was told by Druding, “if you don’t want to see bloodshed, you better stop [Jolly Co. personnel]” from coming to Philadelphia that day.

All those in the Porter Street house said that they would stop the job. According to Bantner, they said that they could not control their young people; he was warned, “don’t ever let my life depend on the Philadelphia police to stop them because they wouldn’t.” Bantner was told also that human bodies would be placed under the wheels of the trucks and that residents would get on top of trucks and form human rings around the site. Local residents in the Porter Street house also made reference to bombs.

While Bantner was in the house, Whitman residents screamed at him and shook their fingers in his face. He had never seen such hostility, and he felt so threatened that he wanted to get out of town quickly, forget the construction business and never come back to work.

Every year, Philly has a tradition of debating how racist the Mummers Parade still is, and how much that matters, and to give the statewide readers the geographical context, a lot of the Mummers clubs are around that area of South Philly. Remember earlier this year when that guy had the “Wench Lives Matter” sign, and some other guys were still wearing blackface, even though it was officially banned from the parade in 1964? Clearly the area still has some issues.

To circle back to the issue at hand, being a progressive leader representing an area like this is hard, but at base you need to push back on incitement and ugliness like this, and use your position to cool things down, not rile people up. If there’s a legitimate breach of justice, you obviously have to speak to that, but you need to sideline the racist hotheads. You can’t get up there with a megaphone in the middle of it all because that’s just going to embolden them.

Posted in Miscellany

Scott Wagner Doubles Down on Helicopter-Based School Auditing

In response to Wolf Press Secretary Jeff Sheridan’s suggestion that the Republican “get out of the helicopter and go visit a school,” Senator Scott Wagner is now doubling down on his claim that he can tell schools have enough state funding by looking at them from a helicopter, unloading on Sheridan with an obviously self-written letter that is as long as it is nutty.

The highlights:

“This is exactly why the citizens of York County sent me to Harrisburg,” Wagner continued. “For years they have watched these Taj-Mahal-like facilities be built while their property taxes continued to skyrocket. Taxpayers are tired of being fed PSEA union talking points to justify more and more spending. Clearly, we can see where the money we are giving them is going – to building these college-like campuses, which of course, are built using mandated prevailing wages. And let’s not forget the even bigger, yearly culprits – salaries, pensions, and benefits […]”

“I can assure Wolf administration spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan that while he viewed the helicopter trip as a political stunt, it was not,” stated Wagner. “I routinely fly several times per month by helicopter throughout Pennsylvania and have for several years, and every time I fly over a jaw-dropping public school campus my pilot and I are totally flabbergasted. Being up in the air at 2000 feet gives you a different perspective on buildings.  It would be advisable for Mr. Sheridan to learn more about me and my diverse private sector background.”

If Wagner’s argument is that very well-capitalized exurban school districts shouldn’t get more state money to build huge suburban schools on cornfields, we agree strongly on that point.

But that is not the point Wagner is making. He’s using an example of legitimate waste–state money topping up the wealthiest districts’ budgets for no apparent reason–to argue against a funding change that helps districts that really are legitimately underfunded. If Wagner wants to write a bill changing the funding formula to send more money from exurban megaschools to poor urban schools, that’d be a great bill, but that’s not what he’s saying.

Posted in Budget, Education, Issues

Getting the Band Back Together

I wanted to give you all a quick update on what’s going on with this blog and with me, after letting it lie fallow for much of the past year.

Keystone Politics has always been a labor of love and was never actually able to support a full-time blogger. Being raving political junkies is what has always kept the lights on here, and for about half of the roughly 2.5 years I spent blogging here from 2012 to late 2014, I just had another full-time job where I was on the Internet all day anyway.

For those trying to get into the blogging game, blogging for free is a long game that can pay off if you keep at it, despite what the freelancing gurus will tell you. I’ve been political blogging since 2010, and it took four years to actually get any type of money from it.

KP gets a lot of traffic, since nobody’s really doing the statewide blogging thing other than PoliticsPA and Keystone Report, so for someone who wanted to transition to writing on the Internet for money, it was a good way to raise my profile as a writer, and it led to me getting paid freelance gigs four years later. KP emeritus and recently-annointed J.D. Jake Sternberger was able to parlay his blogging stint at KP into campaign work, and now he’s working for the national Democratic Party’s most inexplicably hated Democrat Joe Sestak, even co-writing campaign books with him.

When I moved to Philly in 2013, I freelanced for a year on the basis of my track record here, and that all led to me basically living the dream now at PlanPhilly, doing what I wanted to do here which was write and report on Philly city planning politics. And it’s even cooler that we’re at WHYY now. That’s been an extremely busy and fun job, and you won’t be surprised why unpaid political blogging has fallen by the wayside.

It is true though that PA Democratic politics very much still needs a liberal blog to aggregate and digest the news, provide a place for activists to gossip and argue, and for operatives to air their most scurrilous opposition research by proxy. The in-party statewide conversation is important and must be maintained!

I find blog aggregating to be very easy after years of honing this unduly maligned skill, so I’m going to start throwing up a few links and posts here during the day, basically just to provide an open thread for folks, offer up some #hottakes on the issues of the day that have nothing to do with Philly planning, and hopefully bring in some more guest bloggers who want to use this space in a similar way, or try to launch their own careers as journalists and operatives.

If you enjoy political writing and would like to post some stuff here, send me an email at jgeeting@gmail.com

Posted in Miscellany

Elections Have Consequences: Environmental Secretaries Edition

With the confirmation of John Quigley as Tom Wolf’s Department of Environmental Protection Secretary this week, it’s an important time to pause and reflect on how drastically different of an approach Democratic and Republican administrations take to staffing this agency, and how critical it is for Democratic voters to turn out in midterm elections.

We recently had a DEP Secretary, Michael Krancer, who thinks we should regulate radioactive coal ash waste as municipal garbage, doesn’t really believe in climate change, and writes National Review essays about how fossil fuels are the keystone of our economy.

What’s Krancer’s background? His family is a major donor to Republican politicians. The Krancer family gave Tom Corbett $25,000 the day before Krancer’s inauguration as DEP head. And there’s no doubt that he’s very intelligent and has enjoyed a successful career as a business and policy wonk working the revolving door between fossil fuel companies and Republican governance, where he’s appointed to gum up the works. He’s Ron Swanson, basically.

By contrast, John Quigley started his career as a government relations manager for PennFuture, became a staffer at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and worked his way up the ladder as a career public servant until he became the Secretary of DCNR. This is a guy who fundamentally cares about the environment, and has dedicated his career to the technical ins-and-outs of public environmental protection.

Cynics take it as a given, but it really is crazy how accepted it is that Republicans will appoint people to this agency who want to skillfully do a bad job, because they have a fundamental objection to the existence and the mission of the agency. And the idea that this is merely a technical debate between people who agree about end goals, but have a good-faith disagreement about using heavy-handed command-and-control style regulations vs. more market-based interventions is just nuts.

The Republican appointees are drinking the same tea as the Republican base voters, so even when you have an issue like controlling fugitive methane, where the fix is eminently affordable, you still see the same “don’t tread on me” attitude, where the objection is more to DEP’s power and authority to tell business owners what they can and can’t do, rather than the actual content of the regulation.

Posted in Environment, Issues

Tea Party Garbageman Can Tell Which Schools Are Well-Funded By Flying Over Them in a Helicopter

So, this is a thing that happened:

“State Sen. Scott Wagner went for a helicopter ride last week. Sen. Wagner took WHTM’s Dennis Owens for a ride, figuratively.

The senator flew over three central Pennsylvania schools hoping to illustrate that schools are not hurting for funding. In the report that aired, he flew over Cumberland Valley, Northeastern and Central York, showing that those high schools indeed looked impressive from the air.

That’s about all it showed.

For one thing, Cumberland Valley has to be among the more affluent school districts in the state. Northeastern has one of the highest property tax rates in the county. And Central York, well, its educators aren’t exactly sitting by the side of the road holding “Will Teach Your Kids For Food” signs.”

What Senator Wagner gets wrong about flying over schools to check on their funding levels is that

1. You need to have the school budget in front of you to really get a handle on their numbers. You can only really get a rough idea of the school district’s balance sheet from looking at their land footprint from thousands of feet in the air.

2. You need to know whether their funding levels are solid because state funding is sufficient, not just total funding. As the York Daily Record editorial board points out, these particular schools are well-funded by local taxes, not state taxes. What the state funding formula conversation is about is whether the school districts who don’t have lots of wealthy homeowners are getting enough money per pupil to provide a “thorough and efficient” public education, as required by the state Constitution. And the answer there is clearly no.

Posted in Budget, Education, Elections, Issues, State Senate