BY KEITH GUSHARD
While the Pennsylvania General Assembly works toward a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, Gov. Tom Wolf continues to push hard for the Restore Pennsylvania initiative for infrastructure across the state.
Restore Pennsylvania is a $4.5 billion plan covering five general areas across the state — high speed internet access; storm preparedness and disaster recovery; business development and energy infrastructure; demolition, revitalization and renewal; and transportation capital improvements.
Restore Pennsylvania would be funded by a new 20-year bond issue with the bonds to be repaid by adding a severance tax on natural gas extraction in Pennsylvania. The tax would be on top of an impact fee Pennsylvania already has on natural gas wells.
For the past six months, Wolf has been crossing Pennsylvania visiting communities with infrastructure needs — including stops in both Erie and Mercer counties the past few weeks.
"Many of these communities were boroughs in need of assistance with expanding broadband, removing blight, and cleaning up contaminants," Wolf said Tuesday at the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs annual conference in Hershey. Wolf has called for passage of Restore Pennsylvania legislation "to make Pennsylvania a leader in the 21st century economy."
Restore Pennsylvania was introduced in the legislature last week in both the House and Senate.
"A severance tax is the best way to pay for this initiative," Sam Robinson, Wolf's chief of staff, said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters from around the state. "It gives flexibility and it's overdue in Pennsylvania. There's room for the (oil and gas) industry to pay more."
Republican leadership in the General Assembly has dismissed the plan.
Last week, Speaker of the House Mike Turzai has called Restore Pennsylvania "a $4.5 billion, debt-financed slush fund to be allocated at the whim of a new government board and paid for by yet another job-killing tax on the natural gas production industry."
Turzai said it will cost taxpayers at least $6.5 billion — and possibly more — to pay off those bonds over the 20-year period.
In an interview with Capitolwire news service last week, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said "It’s not linked to the budget — the Governor didn’t link it to the budget, as far as a budgetary request — and we’re not going to address it this month."
"It’s not been vetted yet, and we’re certainly not going to create a revenue source that could be a WAM (walking around money) platform, without knowing how this money is going to be spent," Corman said in the interview.
In 2018, Pennsylvania's impact fee program on unconventional natural gas wells distributed more than $190 million from the annual fee on wells.
The funds are distributed in four general categories. Money goes to county and municipal governments where unconventional gas well development occurs; state agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection, Public Utility Commission and Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, which have roles in overseeing well development; all 67 counties for conservation, recreation and bridge repairs, including county soil and water conservation districts; and statewide environmental grant programs, like Growing Greener, the Marcellus Legacy Fund as well as water and sewer infrastructure.
Keith Gushard can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.