With Pennsylvania's hazardous-sites cleanup program due to run out of funding in just 26 days, the House Appropriations Committee yesterday passed a proposal that would ensure the continued remediation and monitoring of contaminated properties - but only through June.
While the stopgap measure won some praise from environmentalists and lawmakers, it also triggered another wave of frustration over the General Assembly's failure to agree on a dedicated funding source for a program that Republicans and Democrats alike say the state can't afford to be without.
"It's beyond me why we have not been able to reach an accord," said State Rep. Rick Taylor (D., Montgomery), whose own bill to keep the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund afloat never made it to a vote this year. "We're talking about the safety of people . . . remediation of brownfields . . . people's jobs."
Should the year end without a new funding plan - short-term or long- - for the cleanup act known as HSCA, as many as 130 employees could be laid off from the Department of Environmental Protection.
A debate over the program nearly derailed passage of the state budget this summer.
HSCA's annual funding has dropped from $60 million in the early 1990s to about $35 million currently - forcing staff cutbacks and limited operations - as the state's inventory of contaminated sites needing attention has remained around 150 at any given time.
They include toxic spills that need mopping up, Superfund sites that must be monitored, and wells that require testing. Most involve abandoned industrial sites.
Under the new funding proposal - spearheaded by State Rep. Matthew Smith (D., Mount Lebanon) and offered as an amendment to a Senate bill - the program would be kept solvent for the remainder of the fiscal year with an $18 million infusion: $10 million from General Assembly spending accounts, the remainder from the state's general fund.
Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee voted, 34-0, in favor of the bill. In a statement issued afterward, Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), the committee chairman, acknowledged that the amendment only "buys us a few months. . . . It doesn't negate our obligation to find a permanent solution to funding."
It now moves to the full House, which could vote on it as early as Monday. After that, it would pass to the Senate for consideration.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Chester) was cool to the proposal when reached late yesterday afternoon.
"I frankly don't think that providing for six months of funding and throwing the future of that fund into the budget process [next summer] is a smart way to go," he said.
In recent years, Gov. Rendell has favored two specific dedicated-funding approaches that have gotten no traction in the General Assembly: a fee on the release of toxic emissions and an increase in the trash tipping fee, a dumping tax.
Because the program "is such an important issue to Pennsylvania . . . Gov. Rendell would sign this bill," spokesman Neil Weaver said of the Smith stopgap amendment, and then he would keep "looking for a dedicated funding stream."
Pileggi and Mary Jo White (R., Venango), who chairs the Senate environmental resources and energy committee, have coauthored a bill that would guarantee HSCA funding for as much as four years.
Their Senate Bill 1100 would provide HSCA $17.2 million from existing legislative accounts through June 30. For most of the next three fiscal years, it would provide $40 million from a levy on businesses called the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax - the funding source since the program started in 1988. Because Pennsylvania intends to eliminate that tax by Dec. 31, 2010, Senate Bill 1100 would require a new funding source to pay for the second half of that fiscal year.