Sunday, September 26, 2010

Self-imposed Oct. 1 deadline for gas tax bill looming

Why don’t legislators simply pass a tax on natural gas drilling in Marcellus Shale?  

"That was the question posed to Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, at a recent meeting in his district sponsored by Trout Unlimited.  With only five days left until the legislators’ self-imposed Oct. 1 deadline and no clear movement toward passing a bill, the question is one being asked by many around the state.

“The important stuff we do is rarely simple,” said Everett.

In the course of crafting the 2010-11 state budget in June, lawmakers agreed to impose a tax on drilling in the Marcellus Shale, which is thought to be one of the world’s largest deposits of natural gas.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati’s office has held talks throughout the summer with both the industry and environmental interests and is prepared to make good on the promise to enact a tax this session, but tax legislation must originate in the House of Representatives.

Rep. David Levdansky, D-Allegheny, has been working on a natural gas tax for two years. “I think this is a once-in-a-career opportunity to make a real difference,” he said. “In my 26 years here, I think this is the best opportunity we have to put in dedicated funding for conservation and environmental protection programs.”

Passing a tax is possible “if we receive bipartisan support,” said Levdansky. “I think next week is do or die.”

Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Minority Leader Sam Smith, said, “The caucus is not telling anybody how to vote. ... It’s a member-by-member thing. Each member is going to weigh it on their own.”

Even Gov. Ed Rendell has expressed skepticism a tax will get passed.

House Democratic spokesman Brett Marcy said, “For the most part, we are united in our determination to get this done.” But they have been in “constant discussions” about the best method of distributing the revenue generated by a tax.

The question isn’t just the rate of tax, but what to do with the money. Leaders on both sides of the aisle have said they think some of the revenue should go to environmental programs, but which ones and in what proportion is a big question. The governor and House leaders want a majority of the revenue to go into the state’s General Fund. Rank-and-file members on both sides appear to prefer the lion’s share go instead toward environmental programs, infrastructure investments and local municipalities.

Along the northern tier, where drilling is transforming both the landscape and economy, Republican lawmakers say the time for a tax hasn’t come. “Who would have believed the counties in the northern tier would be leading the state in jobs created and lowest unemployment,” said Rep. Matt Baker, R-Tioga. “We need to revitalize the economy and create jobs, which all of this is doing right now. Maybe there’s a time and place for a competitive, modest tax, but I don’t think it’s now.”

To read the remainder of Donald Gilliland's article in The Patriot-News, click HERE (as it appeared 9.25.2010).

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