Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Marcellus Shale

Much Awaits PA Legislators – Privatization of State Liquor System, School Vouchers, Redistricting and Marcellus Shale drilling policy

There is much awaiting lawmakers when they return to Harrisburg tomorrow. Several major areas require legislator’s attention before they depart for the winter holidays in three weeks – privatizing the state liquor system, school voucher program, proposed redistricting and natural gas drilling policy of Marcellus shale.

Since taking office last January, Gov. Corbett has been unwavering on certain agenda items, including the privatization of the state liquor system and pushing a school voucher program. Much has been discussed on these topics over the past 11 months and Corbett is seeking resolution by the close of 2011.

Speaking of the state liquor system, did you see that the PA Liquor Control Board has changed the rule on shipping alcohol? Shipping wine or liquor to PA residents was previously prohibited, but the LCB quietly changed the rule last week. Just in time for the holidays, residents can order from LCB’s online Fine Wine & Good Spirits store for home delivery.

This is a service that wine fans in the rest of the country take for granted but now is available to Pennsylvanians. However, the UPS delivery is pricey, $14 for up to 3 bottles, then $1 for each additional bottle delivered.

Initially I was excited about the change, until I realized that the new shipping rule was only applicable if you were purchasing wine from the LCB — buying from out-of-state wineries is still off-limits!

We know that Corbett wants the state out of the liquor business. A private firm reporting to Corbett has released a Public Finance Management Report that estimates a return of up to $1.6 billion for privatizing the state liquor system. So why bother rolling out an alcohol delivery program on the eve of this vote?

Another important agenda item for Corbett since taking office is the school voucher program. Corbett has been transparent in his push for a voucher system, which would permit money to go to parochial and private schools. One of the foundations of this country is the plan for children from all backgrounds to go to school together but if Corbett gets his way, a legislative vote may change public school education in Pennsylvania.

Although the state constitution prohibits using public money to send children to private schools, Corbett and other advocates of school vouchers, think they have a way around that legal matter. Instead of giving the money directly to private schools, they will give the money to parents who in turn give money to schools.

Is the voucher plan a new twist on constitutional law – give the money to parents to give to the schools will magically transform the money so it’s no longer taxpayer money?

Personally, I am opposed to Corbett sidestepping the constitution and continue to be opposed to taxpayer dollars funding nonpublic education. Funneling taxpayer dollars through parents to private schools ultimately weakens the public education system. If there are problems with specific school districts, then I believe that the state has a responsibility to ‘fix’ the school district. And giving some parents money to leave their failing school districts is not the answer nor does it fix the school’s problems for those students that remain. Moving the best students out of a failing school further weakens failing schools.

Besides legislative discussion on liquor privatization and school vouchers, lawmakers have to approve the state and congressional redistricting maps by the end of the year. This week closed the 30-day public comment period on the proposed redistricting and now the matter is in the hands of the legislators.

Redistricting is a powerful tool for elected officials to protect their own and undermine opponents and I have previously stated that sweeping nonpartisan redistricting reform is unlikely. However, I failed to mention that former State Rep Paul Drucker (D-157) introduced legislation (H.B. 2005) to reform Pennsylvania’s redistricting process in 2009. In describing his redistricting reform House Bill 2005 in a November 2009 press release, Drucker stated,

My legislation would establish a nine-person committee made up of the top eight legislative leaders in the House and Senate, or their designees, plus a chairman appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Under the bill, the chairman would have to be a registered voter in Pennsylvania for at least two years, could not hold a federal, state or local office, and not have held a position within a political party in the previous 10 years. The commission would meet in public and be held to specific rules designed to avoid districts drawn for political reasons. Any plan created by the commission would need to be approved by six of the nine members before moving to the full legislature for final approval.

Drucker’s redistricting reform bill would have increased the commission size from five to nine; established a PA Supreme Court appointed chair and created transparency of the redistricting process with public meetings! Unfortunately, Drucker’s redistricting reform bill did not get out of the House State Government Committee. If you are interested, here is link to House Bill 2005.

Another major issue for Harrisburg legislators to discuss in the next 3 weeks is the state policy on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus shale. The state House and state Senate have passed Marcellus shale bills that include per-well impact fee and a series of new environmental regulations but differences between the bills needs to be worked out.

Differences between the two proposals will need to be reconciled over the next few weeks if lawmakers are going to get a bill to the governor’s desk before they leave in mid-December.

“When is a tax not a tax? When it’s a fee.”

“When is a tax not a tax. When it’s a fee.” is the opening line in an article in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, New Pa. GOP leaders eye a fee on natural gas instead of a tax (click here for article)

Terminology may be significant for the newly elected Pennsylvania Governor. The debate continues on whether ‘fees’ on Marcellus Shale gas drilling would break Tom Corbett’s no-tax pledge. Now that Corbett has won the election for governor and will be confronted with a $5 billion budget deficit, will he most likely be OK with a ‘fee’ on the gas drilling.

But is calling it a fee rather than a tax just a matter of semantics? Will Corbett’s no-tax pledge still stand with the institution of a fee based schedule? During his campaign, Corbett stated that fees were included in his no-tax pledge. Has the newly elected governor backed himself in to a corner over Marcellus Shale?

A leading opponent of taxes on Pennsylvania’s emerging shale-gas industry, it is interesting to note that Corbett collected over $800,000 in campaign contributions from that industry, according to a study by two civic groups, Common Cause and Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania. Corbett’s total campaign contributions from the shale-gas industry represented more than all other Pennsylvania candidates combined. Do we think these campaign dollars will influence Corbett’s decisions about Marcellus Shale taxing?

Pennsylvania is now the only state with substantial mineral resources that does not levy a severance tax or fee, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a nonpartisan research agency based in Harrisburg.

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