HARRISBURG — Higher education and social services may be drawing all the attention as the big-ticket budget battle plays out across the state.
But now some Pennsylvania residents — and lawmakers of both parties — are rallying to the defense of two relatively modest budget items that have for two decades provided the foundation for land conservation in Pennsylvania.
In the $27.1 billion budget he proposed in February, Gov. Corbett called for transferring a total of $69 million from the farmland preservation program and the Keystone Recreation, Parks and Conservation Fund into the state's general fund to help cover shortfalls driven by the recession.
From those who see those two programs as critical to protecting open land in all corners of the state, reaction was swift. A coalition was formed representing a wide swath of interest groups, environmentalists, land trusts, and recreation enthusiasts, who said residents reap the benefits of the funds every day as new trails are developed along waterways or large tracts of farmland preserved in places such as Lancaster County, home to the richest nonirrigated soil in the nation.
"Not only do I want full funding restored in parks and farmland, I don't want the governor to think he can take dedicated funding and put it in the general fund," State Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery) said Tuesday.
But the programs may get a reprieve in the budget now being drafted by House Republicans ahead of the June 30 end-of-the-fiscal-year deadline.
"The House is not going with those transfers," said Mike Stoll, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee chairman, State Rep. Bill Adolph (R., Delaware). "The bleak fiscal picture has improved."
At the same time, Stoll cautioned that nothing is final until the governor signs the legislation, which some are predicting could come early this year since the Senate has already offered its broad outline of a budget proposal. The Senate version restores $19 million — or half of the Keystone program's funding — but retains the governor's two-year plan to defund the separate farmland preservation program.
Since their inception, the two funds have been tapped to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of open space, and have been used to leverage millions more in matching funds for the same goal. Both were created by acts of the legislature and voter referendums a generation ago as concern grew about urban sprawl gobbling up farmland and open space.
"Land around Philadelphia remains particularly hard to preserve, because it's valuable and there are the pressures of development," said Harper. She noted that open space is also getting squeezed in regions such as southern York and Adams Counties, where new residents are arriving from the Washington and Baltimore areas; and in the northeast corner of the state, which has faced an influx of residents from New York and New Jersey.
Legislation creating the funds stipulated the two programs be supported by dedicated funding streams: the Keystone Fund, which has preserved 120,000 acres of open space since its creation in 1993, receives a percentage of the real estate transfer tax on property sales. The farmlands fund, which has preserved 450,000 acres and 4,100 farms in its 25-year-history, gets a percentage of the state's cigarette tax.
Among projects Keystone funds have helped bring to fruition are networks of bike and walking trails, local recreation centers, and repairs to aging parks, like Fairmount Park. "It's hard to find a park facility that does not have Keystone money in it," said Andrew Loza, executive director of the Land Trust Association of Pennsylvania, which represents 76 local, regional and statewide groups and is part of a coalition fighting to save the funds.
Corbett's proposal would end funding for the Keystone program as of July 1, when the new fiscal year begins. As for the separate farmlands fund, he would replace its dedicated funding stream with a one-year bond issue and then zero it out the following year.
Karen Martynick, executive director of Lancaster County Farmland Trust, said that ending the nationally recognized farmlands program would be shortsighted. "Farmland preservation is a long-term investment in our state and county's economic well-being that must not be traded to balance the budget for the short term," said Martynick, a former Chester County commissioner. Harper pointed out that the push to protect farms has coincided with rising interest in locally produced foods as more consumers embrace the "farm-to-table" movement.
Both Martynick and Loza warned that efforts to preserve farmlands and open space would diminish without state support. "If you put off and put off these projects and acquisitions, it's death by a thousand cuts," Loza said. "We need to support these programs in good times and bad, because when the land is gone it's gone."