Area lawmakers remain cool to Wolf’s proposed severance tax

By MIKE REUTHER

mreuther@sungazette.com

Local lawmakers aren’t embracing Gov. Wolf’s continued push to pass a severance tax on natural gas, but can get on board with more investments in education.

Wolf, in his budget address Tuesday, offered few details about his spending proposals for next year.

He spent much of the brief speech calling for cooperation across party lines to improve the lives of state residents.

Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy, said at this point it doesn’t appear there will be the same struggle to pass the budget as there was with recent spending plans.

“We are not facing a big deficit,” he said. “The economy is doing pretty well. Revenues are coming in on target. It’s an election year, and I don’t think anyone wants this budget hanging around. We are on a pretty good footing right now.”

Everett noted that the governor said nothing about increasing the budget by more than $1 billion, which would include introducing a severance tax.

But lawmakers say that’s what he’s proposing.

“The increase in spending is around 4 percent,” state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, said. “That is still pretty high as far as an increase.”

Wolf noted that Pennsylvania remains the only state drilling for natural gas without a severance tax.

State Rep. Jeff Wheeland, R-Loyalsock Township, said Wolf fails to mention that the state already imposes an impact tax on drilling.

“I’m open to ideas, but it remains that we must be competitive with other states. Otherwise, the industries will move to areas where they can produce,” he said.

Everett said Wolf’s severance tax amounts to twice of that approved by the Senate last year.

“It looks to me like it would be higher than any other state,” he said. “It would be on top of an impact fee, which would put us way out of range of other states. That is concerning.”

Yaw noted that the Senate’s severance tax was contingent on some regulatory revisions that would bring a fair trade-off.

Wolf’s proposal is unacceptable, he said, and will likely fail to get passed.

“I like some of the things he said, such as an increase in technical education,” Yaw said. “We have been passing a lot of lip service to technical education and not doing anything about it.”

Everett said another issue not raised in the budget address but supported by the governor calls for a $25 fee on residents in communities without municipal police services.

That would include places such as Loyalsock Township which depend on state police coverage.

“That’s a non-starter for me,” Everett said.

Yaw said he was disappointed that Wolf doesn’t seem to be directing enough focus or resources on the state’s opioid problem.

“I think the drug and alcohol problem in Pennsylvania needs to be at the forefront.” he said, noting the high number of deaths from drug overdoses.

As with any budget, time will tell what a final spending plan will look like, according to lawmakers.

“Now the work starts,” Wheeland said. “We look at it (budget) line item by line item. There will be more to follow as we get into it.”

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