Pennsylvania's Growing Greener program is about to run out of money.
A coalition is working to ensure that does not happen, but it has a major hurdle in convincing state lawmakers to infuse the program with funding.
According to Andrew Heath, executive director of Renew Growing Greener Coalition, many lawmakers see the organization and even the program itself as promoting political pork or radical environmental ideas.
It is none of those, however, Heath said Wednesday during an editorial board meeting with the Sun-Gazette.
"We exist to get funding for Growing Greener. That's it," Heath said. "We're not here to promote a severance tax or impact fee (on natural gas) or stop gas drilling."
Heath said the words "growing greener" have liberal connotations, but insists the coalition is a "balanced" organization comprised of a core group of 23 organizations.
Those organizations include the Audubon Society, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds and Sierra Club and Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future.
Heath said if a tax or fee on natural gas is enacted, he hopes a portion of that money can be set aside for the state Environmental Stewardship Fund, which finances the Growing Greener program.
The program itself may have left a bad taste in some politicians' mouths, but it started out with noble intentions and got results, Heath said.
It initially was launched in 1999 by Gov. Tom Ridge, who set aside $645 million to be divvied up among state agencies for acid mine reclamation, watershed restoration, conservation of open space, farmland preservation, and parks and trails.
The state Department of Agriculture, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Protection and PennVest were the agencies that received Growing Greener money for the initiatives, Heath said.
The initial investment was supposed to last five years, but Ridge's successor Gov. Mark Schweiker saw how popular and successful it was and decided to increase tipping fees - a fee attached to each load of garbage commercial trash haulers take to a state landfill - by $4.25. That infused the program with another $60 million to $80 million a year, Heath said.
More funding for the program came its way under the Ed Rendell administration. Rendell proposed a bond referendum to provide the program, dubbed "Growing Greener II," with $625 million over five years. The referendum received overwhelming voter approval, Heath said.
While Growing Greener II continued the good work of the initial program, it also contained a component that allowed program money to be used for pork barrel projects such as the construction of a parking garage, Heath said.
Projects such as those were a far cry from the original spirit of the program, he said.
"A lot of the things that were funded didn't have an environmental aspect," Heath said. "We're not trying to renew Growing Greener II. We're trying to go back to the essence of Growing Greener I. That's what we want to see the money go to."
Under the Rendell administration, the debt service on the bond issue was paid from the general fund. Under Gov. Tom Corbett, the debt service is being paid through the mechanism that helped fund it - the tipping fees.
That leaves about $27 million in Growing Greener coffers and could result in the program being shut down all together.
A coalition is concerned that once the program goes away, it will never return.
Heath said he understands political reluctance to fund the program, given some of the issues attributed to Growing Greener II. However, the program has a track record of funding projects that have had positive community impacts.
Over the last 12 years, Growing Greener has helped fund more than 4,000 projects, he said.
In Lycoming County, projects funded through the program include sewer system upgrades, stream restorations, acid mine drainage remediation, agriculture conservation, and parks and recreation improvements.
Heath said the work of Growing Greener could continue providing funding for priority projects with an infusion of about $200 million a year.
He said the funding for that could be achieved through a three-pronged approach: Stop using tipping fees to pay the debt service on the bonds, dedicate a portion of any impact fee or severance tax on gas drilling to the program, and use money from the state oil and gas lease fund.
The last funding source could be the most useful, Heath said. That is because the oil and gas lease fund, which is moneys raised through gas and oil production and leases, could create a huge windfall for the state.
Heath said he is not advocating leasing more state land for gas drilling. Enough land has been leased already, he said.
Heath said he has wide-ranging support for funding the program. So far, 24 counties, including Lycoming County, have signed resolutions supporting the program. He is on a mission to muster support from others and said he is confident he can get that support.
"I don't have to sell the need to renew the program to anyone," Heath said.