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DEP funding gets boost, but not as much as Wolf wanted

Without a doubt, Gov. Tom Wolf has to choose his battles carefully right about now.

So when the state’s chief executive exercised his right to line-item veto parts of the Republican-passed budget for 2015-16 last week, compromises were made. Funding for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection was one of the items affected.

Wolf had been seeking more than $89.5 million for the agency. The figure would have been a 6 percent increase in funding for DEP, which had not seen an increase in seven years.

In the end, Wolf settled for the $87.2 million allocated to DEP under the GOP spending plan — less than he wanted, but still an increase from the Corbett years, when the agency had fallen to $84.4 million.

But the governor also did not get his wish for 50 new DEP inspectors, which would have been funded with money from Wolf’s proposed natural-gas severance tax.

That was one of the issues on which Republicans dug in their heels, though the Wolf administration also has signaled that the governor’s next budget proposal will revive the discussion.

Environmental advocates are thankful for some progress after years of cuts at DEP, but are still advocating for more money and inspectors.

Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called the DEP budget “a small step” toward overcoming DEP’s loss of 700 positions, or 14 percent of its employees, since 2008.

“Theirs has been one of the largest cuts of any agency. It’s clear that it will take a greater investment by the commonwealth, if it is to get its clean water efforts back on track,” Campbell said.

According to Campbell, about 19,000 miles of rivers and streams in Pennsylvania have been damaged by pollution, and the state “is significantly behind in meeting its clean water commitments.”

Among those commitments, efforts to reduce nitrogen and sediment pollution from agriculture and urban polluted runoff are millions of pounds under estimate, while only about 30 percent of farms are in compliance, Campbell added.

DEP has a massive job to do — with or without the growth of gas drilling — and the cuts of recent years clearly have impaired the agency’s ability to act as watchdog over the state’s environment, whatever you may think about fracking or a severance tax.

The severance-tax debate is one of the biggest controversies of our time in Pennsylvania, and one not likely to be resolved easily.

While Wolf’s plan to fund added inspectors out of severance revenue makes sense on some level (ideologically, if nothing else), you do have to wonder whether seeking a different source of cash would be wiser given the volatility of the taxation debate.

Indeed, the Republican-passed budget did allow for an increase in DEP funding, so clearly there is some bipartisan acknowledgment of the agency’s needs.

Roger DuPuis
Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, health care, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at [email protected].

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