In the depths of winter, the Administration proposed repurposing the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund and the Environmental Stewardship Fund (ESF): $30 million of Keystone Fund monies that would normally be invested in on-the-ground projects would instead be redirected to pay for the general operations of DCNR. Likewise, $16 million of ESF monies would be repurposed to pay for general operations at DEP and other agencies.
In the ensuing months, many of us worked to educate the Administration, senators, and representatives on what a bad proposal this was. Thank you to all who acted. You made a difference in the 2019-2020 state budget.
However, we have a lot of challenging work ahead of us. Here’s a summary of the budget outcomes:
- The Keystone Fund was left untouched.
- The Environmental Stewardship Fund was whacked:
- $16 million for project investments were redirected to pay for government operations in 2019-2020.
- The fiscal code included an amendment to the ESF’s enabling act so that the General Assembly can also take money in future budget years without having to go to the trouble of amending the ESF’s enabling act like it did this year; this greases the skids for future trouble. The temptation will now be stronger to push government operating expenses into the ESF in future budget years.
There are other items—good and bad:
- The REAP tax credit gets a $3 million boost to help farmers put in place best management practices to protect waterways.
- Once again, a large portion ($38 million) of the Oil and Gas Lease Fund was tapped to fund general DCNR operations. This may be unconstitutional, but the courts will have to resolve that. (The courts could find that all Oil and Gas Lease Fund money, which is the income the state receives from leasing State Forest land for drilling, must be reinvested directly into the public lands affected by the drilling.)
- $2.25 million that was previously provided to Heritage Areas out of general tax dollars will now be paid out of ESF.
- The Budget Secretary was given the power to redirect up to $45 million of each special fund (Keystone and ESF are just two of many special funds in state government) to pay for DEP and DCNR operations. Although the Governor’s office tells us that no such redirection is contemplated for Keystone and ESF, we will have to be perpetually on guard against changes in thinking.
- The amendment to SB 575 promoted by the Growing Greener Coalition, which would have permanently relieved the ESF from paying debt service (presently $20 million annually) on Growing Greener 2 bonds, was not considered.
(For a more detailed look at environmental spending in the budget, check out David Hess’s PA Environment Digest Blog.)
So, what does $16 million in lost ESF project investments cost Pennsylvania? $16 million could have been used to:
- Install 32,000 acres of riparian forest buffer to clean up our streams and rivers; or
- Restore to life 51 miles of streams harmed by abandoned mine drainage; or
- Permanently protect 5333 acres of productive farmland—67 80-acre farms; or
- Take any number of other measures to improve our water quality, reduce flooding, protect wildlife, or create outdoor recreational opportunities.
The Environmental Stewardship Fund was established to fund projects that make lasting improvements in communities. Among its other activities, the Growing Greener Coalition will work in the coming months to refocus the Administration’s and legislators’ attention on this purpose. The Coalition will also work to communicate on the big picture issue that elected officials are ignoring $100s of millions in conservation investment needs.
Again, thank you to all who advocated for the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund and the Environmental Stewardship Fund this year. Best wishes for this summer season.
Andrew M. Loza
Executive Committee member, Growing Greener Coalition
Executive Director, Pennsylvania Land Trust Association