An environmental crisis has been averted in Pennsylvania, as the state House yesterday approved - unanimously and with stunning speed - a three-year funding plan for the state's hazardous-sites cleanup program.
Passage of the measure, endorsed by the state Senate in October, came just 19 days before the fund for remediation and monitoring of contaminated properties was to run out of money. As many as 130 employees of the Department of Environmental Protection were to be laid off.
What is needed now is Gov. Rendell's approval - something he has promised to deliver, albeit reluctantly.
Along with environmental advocates and even lawmakers themselves, Rendell said yesterday he is disappointed that the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund (known as HSCA) remains without a dedicated funding source, despite bipartisan consensus that one is needed.
"I will sign the bill, but it is a bad way of doing business," Rendell said after presiding at the lighting of the Capitol Christmas tree. "If we open the floodgates and allow people to spend money in the middle of the [fiscal] year without a revenue source, it would be a terrible precedent."
Under the new funding plan, HSCA would receive $17.2 million from existing legislative accounts until June 30. From then until the end of June 2011, $40 million would be funneled into the program from a levy on businesses called the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax, which has been HSCA's funding source since its beginnings in 1988.
However, the tax is scheduled to end as of Dec. 31, 2010, as the state tries to create a more welcoming business environment.
Rendell noted yesterday that he has "vetoed a dozen bills or so" that require spending beyond the current budget year, with no reduction in other expenditures or increase in revenue.
Nonetheless, he said he would make an exception for HSCA, in part because "we have so many hazardous-waste sites."
At any given time, about 150 toxic-waste sites throughout the state are being cleaned up under HSCA. The program also supports state and local responses to chemical-spill emergencies, remediation of industrial sites known as brownfields, and investigations of illegal drug labs and hazardous-waste disposal.
The House deliberated less than five minutes yesterday before approving the plan. Just like that, another down-to-the-wire showdown over HSCA evaporated.
The House and Senate will not be in session next week, making it unlikely that any rescue plan could have been adopted before HSCA's Dec. 31 funding deadline.
Wrangling over HSCA funding - particularly a proposal that would have diverted $40 million annually from the $86 million Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund - nearly derailed passage of the state budget last summer.
A similar standoff seemed to be taking shape last week.
On Dec. 4, the House Appropriations Committee unanimously passed a stopgap amendment to the Senate bill that would have ensured the survival of HSCA only through June. State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), the chairman, and the other committee members had hoped to force the General Assembly to find another permanent funding source for HSCA during the budget-negotiation process next year.
That idea was denounced by State Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R., Chester), who cowrote the bill adopted yesterday.
"An issue as important as hazardous-sites cleanup should be . . . done in a deliberate, thoughtful fashion," he said, noting that his bill "allowed for time" to do that.
He gets no argument from Jan Jarrett, vice president at Penn Future, a statewide environmental advocacy group. But she does worry that HSCA's new funding plan will expire about the same time as the state's $625 million Growing Greener II program is due to run out of funds - at the end of fiscal 2011.
"So there's going to be an environmental-funding day of reckoning all coming at around the same time," Jarrett said.
David Masur, director of the advocacy group Penn Environment, was worrying about a loss of momentum.
"My guess would be [that] in 60 days, there will be no discussion by any legislator anywhere to tackle the issue of a dedicated funding source for HSCA," he said.
Yesterday, Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery) vowed to prove Masur wrong. She noted that proposed legislation to provide a long-term funding fix for HSCA already is pending, including bills involving bottle returns and refunds. Rendell's preference is to increase the trash-tipping fee, a dumping tax.
"Everybody knows we have to provide [HSCA] with a stable funding source," she said.
In the meantime, Harper said, the shorter-term solution will not come at the expense of other programs, since the state's "general revenues are up $80 million more than what we had projected."
HSCA, she added, will not be punching "a hole in next year's budget."