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Centre County Commissioners Split on Support for Wolf's Restore Pennsylvania Plan

by on June 13, 2019 5:21 PM

Centre County commissioners are moving forward with a resolution voicing support for Gov. Tom Wolf's sweeping infrastructure plan, Restore Pennsylvania, but not without dissent.

On Tuesday commissioners voted along party lines to put the resolution on next week's consent agenda, with Democrats Michael Pipe and Mark Higgins voting in favor and Republican Steve Dershem against.

The $4.5 billion initiative introduced by Wolf in January would address a wide range of issues — broadband internet access, storm preparedness and disaster recovery, business development, green infrastructure, energy efficiency, combatting blight, contaminant remediation and transportation infrastructure. A board would be tasked with allocating funds in 11 interest areas. Legislation for the plan was introduced in the House and Senate earlier this month.

It would be funded by borrowing that would be repaid by a new severance tax on natural gas production, something Wolf has been trying to accomplish since taking office in 2015 but which has been resisted by the Republican-controlled legislature.

Dershem said he believes there are too many uncertainties and that he does not support the severance tax.

"We really don’t have any guaranteed outcomes," he said. "There’s no specific plans for where this money’s going to go. So I don’t know if Penns Valley’s going to get a dime of this money. What I do know is everybody that heats with natural gas is going to pay more in service costs. I would warn this board to be very careful about being political advocates on legislation as vague as this."

Pennsylvania does have an impact fee for natural gas companies, and that money is distributed to counties each year for a variety of projects. But Pipe said it is "a very small amount in terms of what other states charge." The impact fee would remain in place and its disbursements to counties unchanged.

"Every other state in the United States that has significant natural gas does charge a severance tax of one kind or another," added Higgins. "We’re the only state that does not."

Pipe said the county is not pledging any money to the initiative but that if passed it would receive Restore PA funds that could be used for many projects.

"This would be a phenomenal way for us to invest millions of dollars into many of these projects we see across the county," Pipe said.

Dershem suggested the resolution is "lobbying for a tax increase."

Pipe responded that they are lobbying for funding for infrastructure projects.

"I’m specifically lobbying for the fact that we need the funding to do these projects," Pipe said. "One of the things specifically this would go toward is high-speed internet access and broadband deployment and development within the state which I think are critical.

"So if you’re not in favor of broadband, that’s fine."

Dershem said he is in favor extending broadband internet service to underserved communities, but that it is "a private sector responsibility," and that Restore PA doesn't specify how it will be achieved.

"I will tell you my understanding of this and my reading of Restore PA is it doesn’t give a clear guideline for how that broadband is going to be deployed and maintained into the future," Dershem said.

Broadband internet expansion is one of several areas that could benefit Centre County, Higgins said, noting that the plan uses as an example Penns Valley Area School District where at least 8 percent of students only have dial-up internet at home. Statewide the plan estimates 800,000 people lack access to high-speed internet, though a recent report found that number is likely substantially higher.

Support for green infrastructure, including outdoor recreation spaces and the county-based farmland preservation program also would have benefits locally, Higgins said. More than 1,500 farms statewide are on a waiting list for the preservation program, including more than 50 in Centre County — some of which have been on the list for more than a decade. 

Other areas include flood mitigation and disaster recovery. Across Pennsylvania in 2018, $63 million in damage to public infrastructure was not reimbursed by federal disaster programs. That did not include Centre County last year, Higgins said, but he noted flooding, particularly in the Bald Eagle Valley, as a concern.

"We’re a little bit better off than some counties in Pennsylvania but we’ve still had significant flooding events here," he said.

If approved on next week's consent agenda, the resolution will be sent to state representatives from Centre County and shared with county municipalities to consider adopting themselves. Two boroughs — State College and Bellefonte — have already passed similar resolutions.

Whether the Restore PA legislation is passed, or in what form, remains to be seen. The measures have support on both sides of the aisle, and while Republican leadership agrees on the need for addressing infrastructure projects, they've differed on how to fund it.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said the bill won't be brought to the floor this month and won't be a part of the budget deal for the coming year, in part, he said, because it needs to be vetted. House Speaker Mike Turzai said Restore PA would create a "debt-financed slush fund to be allocated at the whim of a new government board and paid for by yet another job-killing tax on the natural gas production industry.”

Senate Republicans have proposed a more limited version that would be paid for by allowing more drilling in state forests. House Republicans have a package of infrastructure bills that would offer tax credits for private sector investments.



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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