FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
State Rep. Greg Vitali
Lawmakers and activists oppose environmental budget cuts
HARRISBURG, June 4 – State Rep. Greg Vitali, other lawmakers and representatives from the business and non-profit sectors called for funding to critical environmental programs to be restored in the state budget.
They held a Capitol news conference Monday, on the eve of the state House beginning debate on a proposed $27.65 billion budget.
They focused on state Department of Environmental Protection funding reductions, diversion of Keystone Fund money from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to the General Fund, elimination of a dedicated funding source for the Farmland Preservation Program and elimination of funding for Alternative Fuels Incentive Grants.
Vitali, D-Delaware, said there are numerous potential funding sources to preserve the programs, including more than $300 million that is expected to come in above revenue projections this fiscal year. He also said the state could generate revenue through a reasonable tax on natural gas drilling, eliminating the vendor discount on sales tax collections and taxing cigars and smokeless tobacco.
"This is not about financial necessity," Vitali said. "It's about ideology."
The proposed budget would cut an additional $10.5 million from DEP's general fund appropriation, reducing it to $125 million. The appropriation was cut $10 million last year and its state appropriation has been reduced by $65 million since 2006.
"We need more air and water quality inspectors to protect us, not less," said Jeff Schmidt, director of the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter. "They represent Pennsylvania's thin green line standing between the public and polluters."
The proposed budget also would eliminate the Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant program. The program had provided $5 million to $6 million a year for incentives to use vehicles fueled by electricity, biodiesel, natural gas and hydrogen.
Ben Wootton, owner of Keystone Biofuels in Camp Hill, said the alternative fuels program helped his business expand and create jobs.
"Without it we would not have been able to secure the necessary funding," Wootton said. "In fact, it would be safe to say that if the AFIG program was not in place, the Pennsylvania biodiesel market would not exist and flourish as it does today. With a program like AFIG, Keystone was able to expand our production capabilities and double our workforce in the past 12 months.”
The proposed budget would shift $20.48 million generated by a tax on cigarettes that has been used to fund the Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Fund and put it in the General Fund.
The Farmland Preservation program protects Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry and preserves scenic landscapes. Currently, about 2,000 farms are on the waiting list for the program.
Betsy Huber, legislative liaison for the Pennsylvania State Grange and a supervisor in
in Upper Oxford Township, Chester County, said the program has been critical to farmland preservation efforts in her community.
"Upper Oxford has been able to preserve more than 40 parcels of prime farmland so far and we still have a lengthy waiting list of applicants," Huber said. "We are a small township with a population just under 2,500, so we have leveraged our own funding with county and state preservation funding to be able to preserve more of our valuable agricultural resources than we could alone."
The proposed budget would take $19 million from the Keystone Fund in DCNR's budget. The program supports community parks and recreation, land trust projects and state park and forest rehabilitation. DCNR has a $1-billion backlog in state park and forest infrastructure projects.
"So many miles of hiking trails have benefited from Keystone funding," said Curt Ashenfelter from the Keystone Trails Association. "Reducing funding will have a significant negative impact on the quality of hiking trails in Pennsylvania.”